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World stage important in fight for Indigenous rights

Dr Hannah McGlade -

In the aftermath of the devastating referendum to establish an Indigenous Voice to Parliament there is renewed interest in Indigenous rights and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

As an expert member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, I welcome this increased attention to the Declaration rights and support the key findings of the Senate Inquiry into UNDRIP chaired by Senator Pat Dodson.

As the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples recommended nearly a decade ago in 2014, nation states should develop National Action Plans to realise the rights set out in the Declaration.

Unfortunately, Australia isn't alone in failing to progress the Declaration, and the Senate Inquiry makes other important recommendations including that the Commonwealth ensure legislation and policy on matters concerning First Nations people be consistent with the UNDRIP. Further, that any National Action Plan considers the legislative, policy, and other approaches to implement, and assess compliance with, UNDRIP across all jurisdictions and include coordination agreements with all levels of government.

And while independent Senator Lidia Thorpe's private member's Bill to implement UNDRIP was not passed, this wasn't surprising in view of the past lack of attention to the UNDRIP in Australia. This was particularly so under conservative Liberal governments who limited Indigenous international engagement in UN forums and in a tokenistic manner, contrary to the principle of self-determination, for example, deciding on indigenous meeting representatives.

I was a law student in the early 1990s observing the historic negotiations of Indigenous peoples with member states culminating in the UNDRIP, accepted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. Australia influenced Canada, New Zealand, and the US to oppose the vote in favor of the Declaration, being especially against Indigenous peoples' right to self-determination, equating it to secession or separation from the state. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd later reversed this appalling decision and since we've formally supported UNDRIP, but not enough to achieve its important commitments.

The Australian government has now established an Indigenous taskforce in DFAT and appointed First Nations Ambassador Justin Mohammed. As a UN expert, I approached the First Nations Ambassador recently and requested that the Government host a pre-sessional meeting of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues in Australia in preparation for its annual meeting in April, New York.

Hosting the pre-sessional UNPFII meeting will give Australia the ability to shape and influence the work of the UN to tackle some of the most pressing problems facing indigenous peoples globally; making it an ideal opportunity to remind the world that Australia is committed to human rights, despite the failure of the recent Voice referendum. Also giving Indigenous peoples an opportunity to engage on pressing issues, such as Treaty and Makaratta.

The Foreign Minister, if true to her word of supporting and recognising the critical role Indigenous peoples play in international affairs, should support this request, and host the meeting. An opportunity like this lost will not be forgotten.

Recently in terms of international law, women's rights have also been to the fore, and with the 16 Days of Activism on Violence Against Women we were privileged to meet Canada/US MMIWG (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls) advocate Agnes Woodward who participated in grassroots workshops with women and families.

In this time, we also lodged with the UN Committee for the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) an Optional Protocol communication for Jody Gore of the Jaru Gidga people of East Kimberley. Jody was wrongfully convicted of murder when she acted in self-defense, with a court trial Jody said likened US drama 'A Time to Kill'. It certainly was racist in overtone and extremely punitive to Jody, who had experienced life-threatening violence, yet was denied the right to self defence, with the burden of proof effectively reversed.

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. This is Indigenous rights, foreign diplomacy, and engagement at its best.

Dr Hannah McGlade is a Noongar law academic and a member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues.

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