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UN: Aboriginal program violates human rights

The Associated Press

Tuesday, February 23, 2010; 11:17 PM

SYDNEY -- An Australian government program imposing radical restrictions on Aborigines in a crackdown on child abuse is inherently racist, breaches international human rights obligations and must be changed immediately, a U.N. official said Wednesday.

In an advance copy of a report to be released next week, the United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous human rights, James Anaya, expressed serious concerns over the controversial initiative known as "the intervention."

The program forced a series of tough rules on Aborigines in the Northern Territory - including bans on alcohol and hard-core pornography - in response to an investigation that found rampant child sex abuse in remote indigenous communities.

"The measures specifically target indigenous people and impair certain rights and freedoms," Anaya, a University of Arizona human rights law professor, told The Associated Press. "It does impair self-determination of Aboriginal communities, their ability to make certain choices about how their communities are run."

In August, Anaya traveled to several Aboriginal communities to hear residents' concerns. His conclusions and recommendations released Wednesday are part of a larger report Anaya wrote on Aboriginal issues that will be released next week.

Aborigines make up about 2 percent of Australia's population of 22 million and are the country's poorest, unhealthiest and most disadvantaged minority. Governments have spent billions of dollars on community programs, housing and education reforms over the past few decades, but living conditions for the nation's original inhabitants remain abysmal.

In 2007, a government-commissioned inquiry concluded that child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities had grown to catastrophic levels, though it didn't provide actual numbers. The government quickly suspended its own anti-discrimination law - the Racial Discrimination Act - 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.

The measures are "incompatible" with Australia's international human rights obligations, including the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Anaya said.

Further, he said, there is no proof any of the measures have actually improved the lives of Aborigines.

"Have the alcohol restrictions actually reduced consumption? There's no evidence for it," he said.

Anaya will present his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in September. Australia would be given the opportunity to formally respond then.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin's spokeswoman Jessica Walker said in a statement that the government plans to roll out new rules for income management in July that will not discriminate based on race. She also said the government has introduced legislation that would reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act.

"This Government's priority is taking action to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and protecting vulnerable people including women and children," she said.

In August, Macklin defended the intervention after Anaya criticized the program in an address to reporters.

"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," Macklin said at the time. "These are the rights that I think need to be balanced against other human rights."

Anaya believes there's a way to do both - by giving Aborigines a say in how they can best be helped.

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