Senior Aboriginal leaders have taken the fight against the Western Australia’s controversial draft Aboriginal cultural heritage bill to the United Nations.

Five Aboriginal leaders, Slim Parker, Kado Muir, Dr Anne Poelina, Clayton Lewis and Dr Hannah McGlade, have requested that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) review the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020.

Parker is a Martidja Banjima senior Elder from the Pilbara, Muir a cultural leader of the Ngalia Peoples of the Goldfields region, Dr Poelina a Nyikina Warrwa woman from the Kimberley, and Lewis a Nanda Widi man with family ties to the Mid-West, Murchison & Gascoyne regions.

Dr McGlade is from the Kurin Minang People and lives in Boorloo (Perth). She believes the bill does not uphold Australia’s obligations to protect Indigenous rights.

“We have a right to Indigenous culture, we have a right to protect our sacred sites, we have a right to the protection of our lands [and] we have a right not to be subjected to race discrimination,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the bill does not uphold those rights and allows violation of those fundamental rights, and that’s why this step has now been taken to bring this matter to the attention of the UN treaty body.”

The legislation provides the Aboriginal Affairs Minister final say on the destruction of a site identified as significant by Aboriginal People. The Minister determines the decision based on what is “in the interests of the state”.

The submission argues that the emphasis on Ministerial discretion in the bill would likely “reproduce the structural racism that has already led to the destruction of cultural heritage in WA”.

The authors said that without the clear requirement for the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to protect sites of significant cultural heritage, the bill is at odds with Australia’s UN treaty obligations, including the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Under Article 8 of the UNDRIP, Indigenous Peoples have the right “not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture”.

Dr McGlade said the state Labor Government should take the Committee seriously when it responds.

“[Australia] are a part of the UN system of international human rights,” she said.

“We do say we support human rights in Australia and the [Labor] party itself has a reconciliation plan, [but] it’s not consistent with reconciliation to violate Aboriginal human rights.”

Dr McGlade said the diversity of the submission’s authors shows that WA’s Aboriginal People are united against the bill.

“I’m not hearing any support for this bill because Aboriginal People know that the status quo hasn’t been disrupted, and the risk [to Aboriginal heritage] is too high,” she said.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson disputed the criticisms, calling the bill a “monumental step forward”.

“The new Bill ensures rights for Aboriginal People to protect their sacred places, their own country and their own futures. It ensures that everyone must come to them.”

“A veto right for anyone is not workable. This entire process must be about consultation, negotiation and agreement making between Aboriginal parties and proponents,” he said.

By Sarah Smit