A U.N. expert's harsh criticism of Australia's Aboriginal policy reopened a national debate Friday on a decades-old issue: how best to help the country's original settlers and most disadvantaged minority.
The government defended its measures as necessary to bridge the gap between black and white Australians. At issue is whether in pushing hard for results, the government is violating the rights of the people it is trying to help.
At the heart of the debate is a program known as "the intervention," which has imposed tough rules on Aborigines in the Northern Territory — including bans on alcohol and hard-core pornography — in response to a report that found child sex abuse was rampant in remote indigenous communities.
"The most important human right that I feel as a minister I have to confront is the need to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, particularly children, and for them to have a safe and happy life," Jenny Macklin, the government's Indigenous Affairs Minister, told reporters in Melbourne. "These are the rights that I think need to be balanced against other human rights."
Her remarks came in response to James Anaya, the U.N. special rapporteur on indigenous human rights, who said Thursday that his 12-day fact-finding tour of Australia revealed that Aborigines still suffer from "entrenched racism." He expressed particular concern about the intervention.
Strong emotions on both sides highlight the difficulty in balancing respect for human rights with the need for fast results in the government's seemingly endless quest to improve living conditions for the country's indigenous people.
"Nobody has problems with the notion of intervention," said Jon Altman, director of the Center for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at The Australian National University in Canberra. "What you need, though, is the right sort of intervention. And I think this intervention's been very topdown, it has been paternalistic and it has been discriminatory. ... I would think we're looking for a more empowering form of intervention."
Aborigines, who make up about 2 percent of the country's 22 million-strong population, have suffered inequality, ill-health and poverty since white settlers arrived more than 200 years ago. In recent decades, billions of dollars have been thrown into community programs, housing and education. Yet Aborigines remain the poorest, unhealthiest and most disadvantaged minority, with an average life span 12 years shorter than other Australians.
In June 2007, a government-commissioned inquiry concluded that child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities had become an issue of "urgent national significance." The government reacted swiftly and dramatically, suspending its own anti-discrimination law so it could ban alcohol and hard-core pornography in Aboriginal communities and restrict how Aborigines spend their welfare checks. The restrictions do not apply to Australians of other races.
"I think it's very unfair and it should be stopped immediately," Barbara Shaw, an Aboriginal leader who led a campaign to get the U.N. to examine the program, told The Associated Press.
But Mal Brough, who was Indigenous Affairs minister under Australia's previous conservative government and oversaw the intervention's creation, said improving living conditions for Aborigines was more important than worrying if the government had "offended some law."
"I get very annoyed when I hear people pontificating about human rights when today there will be children sitting out there in abject squalor with diseases they don't have to have, with inadequate education, poor nutrition and poor access to health and we have some nicety about human rights legislation," Brough told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
His party's indigenous affairs spokesman Tony Abbott dubbed Anaya — a University of Arizona human rights law professor — an uninformed outsider.
"I think this is the kind of nonsense we are used to from these armchair critics," Abbott told ABC television. "Sure things aren't perfect there now but they are a lot better than they were. The intervention is something which really has been good for our country and been good for the Aboriginal communities."
The government says the intervention has helped create jobs and reduce violence in remote Aboriginal settlements. Yet most residents of those communities are still suffering and live in squalor, with as many as 30 people crammed into one house.
Shaw, who lives in an Aboriginal settlement near the Outback city of Alice Springs, met with Anaya at a U.N. meeting in New York in 2008 to express her concerns.
"When I went to New York I found that (Americans) were shocked and amazed that Australia's government can treat people this way," Shaw said. "There are better ways of working with Aboriginal people."
Shaw said she hosted Anaya for a dinner of kangaroo in her small home last week and introduced him to community members.
Their struggles, Shaw said, have only worsened since the intervention began. Welfare restrictions have forced more people to beg in the streets, and racism has increased, she said.
She shares the view of many residents in remote Aboriginal settlements: Help is needed, but the community wants a vote in how that help is administered.
"They just want the government to come and listen to what they have to say," she said.