Australia must abolish policies that discriminate against Aborigines in its quest to lift its indigenous population out of Third World poverty, the head of an international human rights group said Wednesday.
Irene Khan, secretary general of London-based Amnesty International, singled out for criticism the government's so-called emergency intervention aimed at eradicating child sex abuse in Outback Aboriginal communities.
The government suspended anti-racial discrimination laws two years ago so that it could target Aborigines in the remote Northern Territory with sweeping measures that ban alcohol and hard-core pornography as well as control how welfare checks can be spent. The restrictions do not apply to Australians of other races.
The government was also spending billions of dollars on improving housing, health services, schools and policing in these overcrowded communities that are often plagued by alcohol and substance abuse.
Khan, a Bangladesh-born lawyer, told the National Press Club that Aboriginal poverty was "the most pressing frontier for human rights" in Australia.
She said the government must find a solution that respected all Aborigines' rights without compromising racial equality.
"If Australia is to move to a lasting solution to poverty within its own borders, the government must move out of the knee-jerk emergency measures that are compromising and distorting human rights," Khan said in a nationally televised speech.
"They feel disempowered, robbed of their dignity, threatened with the loss of their identity and attacked on their own ancestral lands," she said of Aborigines she had met.
Khan's recent visit to Aboriginal camps and ramshackle settlements in the Northern Territory came three months after a fact-finding mission to the same region by the United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous human rights, James Anaya.
Anaya concluded that the sweeping restrictions imposed on Aborigines breached Australia's international obligations on human and indigenous rights.
In a statement Wednesday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin agreed that suspending discrimination laws had "left Aboriginal people feeling hurt, betrayed and less worthy than other Australians."
Macklin said her government would soon restore the legislation. But the government has not yet explained how the restrictions on Aborigines might be varied.
Aborigines are a minority of 500,000 among Australia's 22 million people and die on average more than a decade younger that other Australians.
Khan said she was surprised to witness first hand the extent of their poverty.
"In the heart of the First World, I saw scenes more reminiscent of the Third World — of countries torn by war, dominated by repressive regimes or racked by corruption," she said.
"It is pretty clear that what they are suffering from is a base violation of human rights and this violation occurs on a continent of such privilege that it is not merely disheartening, it is deeply disturbing," she added.