Shining a Light on Sorry Day 2017
Writing from our UN NGO office in New York it seemed important to shine a more international light on National Sorry Day in 2017, particularly as the UN Indigenous Forum is soon to begin in New York.
This year the Forum celebrates the tenth anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. In 35 articles the Declaration provides a framework of minimum standards “for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous peoples” – their rights to be free from discrimination, to live in peace and security, to control their traditional lands, to preserve their culture, traditions, language and artefacts, to have access to education, health services and all the benefits of freedom available to the wider population. Following the Declaration, the role of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was established to monitor and report on the progress of Indigenous people in their countries.
The UN Special Rapporteur, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, has just completed a visit to Indigenous communities in Australia. She found the number of Aboriginal children in detention “disturbing and sad” and “a major human rights concern.” These young people, she said “are essentially being punished because they are poor.” Appalled by the living conditions of some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and by the prevalence of racism she discussed with them the possibility of a treaty which would enshrine in law the basic rights and responsibilities of Indigenous people and the Australian government.
National Sorry Day as an annual day of remembrance was a recommendation in the Bringing Them Home Report “to acknowledge the impact of forcible removal on the Australian Indigenous population.” It is a day not only to acknowledge the impact but to gauge how, as a nation, we are helping the Stolen Generation and their families to heal. We are not doing well. The recent Closing the Gap report shows that we are making slow, if non-existent, progress to improve the health, education and employment of Indigenous Australians. Improved retention rates in secondary school was the only target which indicated some success. The Prime Minister expressed his disappointment at the results to which Jackie Huggins, First Peoples co-chair, replied “respectfully, your disappointment will not compare to our old people and what they feel that our lives are still shorter, sicker and poorer than other Australians.”
The Special Rapporteur made the point that unless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are engaged at every level of planning and contribute to the processes of improving health, education and employment it is unlikely their situation will greatly change. We are not without our Indigenous academics, doctors, educators and entrepreneurs already making a great contribution to Australian society and they must be brought to the fore if Australia is to close the gap, leave no one behind and heal the wounds of separation, racism and exclusion.
Words: Coordinator Loreto JPIC, Libby Rogerson ibvm