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Howard government fought behind the scenes to sabotage UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Giovanni Torre -

John Howard's Liberal-National government fought against recognising the right of Indigenous peoples to "self-determination" and worked secretly with Canadian authorities to try to weaken a draft UN declaration, newly released cabinet papers show.

The Guardian reports that cabinet papers from 2003 released by the National Archives on Monday show Australian government departments held concerns about potential impacts of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but Australian government talks with Canada on changes were being pursued with "no Indigenous consultation about the process or its product".

The Howard government later opposed the Declaration outright, alongside just three other governments (Canada, New Zealand and the United States), while 143 countries voted in favour.

Mr Howard, who refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations and said the idea of a Treaty with Indigenous people was "repugnant", said the decision to oppose the Declaration "wasn't difficult at all".

In 2009 the Rudd Government pledged Australia's support for UNDRIP, though many note the Declaration has not been implemented at a domestic level.

The Guardian reports that the now published Cabinet documents show Australian authorities wanted to replace the phrase "self-determination" with meaningless management jargon, stripping the Declaration of any real power or efficacy.

Australia's delegation told Canadian counterparts it could not "accept an absolute right of Indigenous peoples to determine their own political and legal institutions".

In a submission to cabinet dated 30 May 2003, Minister for Indigenous affairs, Philip Ruddock and foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer briefed their colleagues on Australia's "continued separate, parallel negotiations with Canada to develop a complete alternative text" to the UNDRIP and noted they were in an isolated position.

"While we have, in accordance with Cabinet's decisions … continued to push for alternative language to the right of self-determination in our discussions with Canada and other like-minded states, and in the Working Group, it is increasingly apparent that our position attracts little support from even the like-minded states," Mr Ruddock and Mr Downer wrote, the Guardian reports.

The federal resources Department had told ministers the phrase "self-determination" ... "should be addressed to minimise any impacts of the draft declaration on access to resources in Australia".

The environment and heritage Department was worried about a part of the draft Declaration that said states "shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands and territories of Indigenous peoples", as this could create significant "obligations and constraints".

The Australian and Canadian settler states were also alarmed by Declaration language emphasising "the need for demilitarisation of the lands and territories of Indigenous peoples, which will contribute to peace, economic and social progress and development, understanding and friendly relations among nations and peoples of the world"

Mr Ruddock and Mr Downer told their colleagues in 2003 some of the issues were "theoretical rather than practical" because a number of structures, such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), "already constitute particular Australian forms of self-determination". In 2004, the Howard government abolished ATSIC.

In November last year, federal parliament's joint standing committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, chaired by the retiring Labor senator Pat Dodson, called for a national action plan to implement the UN Declaration.

In early December, Labor and the Coalition voted together to defeat a Bill from Senator Lidia Thorpe to enshrine in Australian law the rights established by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Senator Thorpe, a Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman and independent senator for Victoria, first introduced the Private Members bill in March 2022. After 21 months and two inquiries, the government and opposition voted the Bill down on 6 December.

Dr Hannah McGlade, a Noongar law academic and member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, said that "Clearly, there is much now to be done in relation to the UNDRIP and its recognition of Indigenous rights".

"As Indigenous peoples, our challenge lies in ensuring our best advocacy, and not just at home, but in international UN forums, where we can call on Australia to respect UNDRIP and our rights as Indigenous peoples," she said.

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