Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

I have long held the view that the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia is self-defeating. Belonging to the same landscape; bound together in territorial respect for the aspirations, life and memory of our own constituents; surely it can be agreed that the dislocation of indigenous peoples from their living cultural landscape is as abhorrent as the eviction of non-indigenous Australians from Australia.

Nevertheless, Australia had little choice but to refuse to ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by its General Assembly last week.

ABC News quotes Prime Minister Howard as saying, “We do not support the notion that you should have customary law taking priority over the general law of the country.”

Upon closer consideration, however, elements of the declaration reveal far more insurmountable implications.

Article 28 (in particular):

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, of a just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.

2. Unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.

When the High Court ruled that native title and pastoral lease could co-exist, we saw the federal parliament amend the Native Title Act to provide greater certainty to pastoral interests and effectively rewrite history against indigenous interests.

For Australia, the implications of Article 28 alone, is insupportable. It is a very great shame that the Declaration was framed in such a manner, when so much of it stood for such gain.

28 Responses to Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

  1. rog September 18, 2007 at 7:52 am #

    Australia, NZ, Canada and the US were the only ones who voted against it.

    Nearly everyone else including China and Japan voted for it, so it makes you wonder just how relevant such declarations are.

  2. rog September 18, 2007 at 8:10 am #

    Having just quickly read the text, there are no definitions of the terms used esp ‘indigenous’ and no method to hear and enforce such claims. So any self proclaimed minority group can make a claim to property based on ‘cultural’ or ‘spiritual’ beliefs. No doubt the Hamas and Hezbollah will be quick to claim legitimacy.

    Non indigenous peoples, whoever they are, have the right to throw this rubbish in the bin.

  3. rog September 18, 2007 at 8:15 am #

    From NZ;

    “..The Prime Minister has defended the decision not to sign, saying the Treaty of Waitangi and common law already does the job.

    “The form in which it it was put to a vote cuts right across New Zealand law and practice. I think anyone looking at the list – those who have cheerfully voted for it – and comparing the list of many with their records of indigenous rights and ours would say that New Zealand makes a much better fist of respecting indigenous rights,” Helen Clark says.

    Foreign Minister Winston Peters says New Zealand voted no because provisions in the declaration ran counter to the legal system.

    “It is contradictory, it is aspirational, it’s not legally binding and provisions in this declaration are absolutely counter to this country’s legal system, and also it’s political and constitutional structure,” Peters told ONE News.

    “You’ve also got challenges to the government’s right to govern, governmental structures, which in 2007 have evolved in such a way that we might have political differences, but the mass majority of New Zealanders and the political parties support the structures.””

  4. Lamna nasus September 18, 2007 at 9:46 pm #

    ‘Non indigenous peoples, whoever they are, have the right to throw this rubbish in the bin.’ – Rog

    The sound of vested interest voting as expected, pausing only to imply anyone who disagrees is a terrorist… or a terrorist sympathiser.. or providing unthinking support to terrorists..or once read a tabloid newspaper that contained an article on terrorism… *yawn*.. terrorism is on the fast track to becoming the single most debased term of the 21st Century…

    On the subject of Hamas and Hezbollah, there are over 4 million Palestinian refugees inside and outside Israel many of whom grew up and are still living in refugee camps; so before Rog starts gobbing off, maybe he should spend 30 years or so in a refugee camp where fundamentalist organisations provide the majority of schools, medical facilities and infrastructure… readers would then find Rog whistling a very different tune…
    Interesting that even without that experience his cultural and spiritual beliefs are important but those belonging to others are not…

    Ridiculously simplistic good and evil crusades are precisely why the USA is up to its butt in crocodiles, rather than having drained the proverbial swamp… and why the subjective view of whats good or evil frequently depends on whether you grew up in New York.. or Tehran…

  5. rog September 18, 2007 at 11:27 pm #

    So how do you define ‘indigenous’?

    If history is the criteria, the jews were there long before Mohammed was thought of.

  6. Lamna nasus September 18, 2007 at 11:57 pm #

    You appear to be confusing religious cults with the nationality of the people following them Rog..
    There were arabic tribes in Palestine long before Mohammed, even a cursory examination of the Old Testament reveals a very considerable history of warfare between the various peoples inhabiting Palestine…
    Pre-European USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand however were precisely that.. pre-European.. a little more humility at the very least, would therefore be appropriate.

  7. Schiller Thurkettle September 19, 2007 at 6:48 am #

    Last I heard, everyone in Australia is an immigrant or descended from immigrants. So who are ‘indigenous?’

    Now I gotta wonder: does this declaration also cover anarchist “squatters” who take over buildings when they congregate to protest globalization? They’re ‘indigenous’ to their squats.

  8. Jayne September 19, 2007 at 1:35 pm #

    Reading Article 28 brings several things to mind –

    “lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.”
    So,in a broad sense,this could include any rental or agistment properties which a person’s family occupied for many years and was either evicted from or the landlord sold to another.

    As many can claim both Koorie and white ancestry,what and where could they claim -both native lands and the city postcode where they grew up?
    Can an aboriginal person from suburban Perth with a white father from an old settler family in Gippsland claim the area where his paternal ancestors lived,as part of his cultural heritage and ties to the land?
    And if not,why not? Who decided that “indigenous” only applied to Koories?
    I.E Mountain cattlemen families have long traditions and ties to the high plains but who have now had their 150+ years of heritage,tradition and ties to the land trampled in the ground by the Govt.

  9. rog September 20, 2007 at 4:45 am #

    tell me the diff between ‘spiritual’ and ‘cultural institutions’ and ‘religious’…

    …the UN dont recognise religion or ‘cults’…

  10. Travis September 20, 2007 at 4:55 am #

    >Last I heard, everyone in Australia is an immigrant or descended from immigrants.

    Are you including Aboriginal Australians here Schiller? The ones who have been in this country for some 40,000 years? Perhaps you would only refer to African as indigenous, that may be easier for you to swallow?

  11. Schiller Thurkettle September 20, 2007 at 7:17 am #

    Well Travis,

    You are of course correct, Sir! The Maoris are also immigrants.

    On the other hand, we could argue about the location of the Garden of Eden. The Mormons claim it’s in the southern USA.

  12. Lamna nasus September 20, 2007 at 7:40 am #

    What Garden of Eden?… please leave your imported middle eastern fundamentalist theosophy at the door, Thurkettle…

  13. Neil Hewett September 20, 2007 at 8:01 am #

    The international definition of “indigenous peoples” used by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights recognizes the use of native languages, the presence of traditional socio political institutions, a subsistence-based mode of life, an indigenous identity and a sense of belonging.

    Recited within the declaration’s annex: Concerned that indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests…

    Perhaps we could even go so far as to describe the ecological relationship differences between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples as obligate mutualism and parasitic, respectively.

  14. Schiller Thurkettle September 20, 2007 at 9:26 am #


    Mormons? Middle Eastern? What planet are you from? Dude, you need to like visit places with books. Here, we call them libraries, and you can read things there.

    Lamna is obviously not the person to consult regarding these issues.

  15. Lamna nasus September 20, 2007 at 10:48 am #

    Thurkettle, any Christian sect (including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any of its splinter sects) for theosophical credibility is based (to a greater or lesser extent) on the recorded details of the activities of a fundamentalist, jewish Palestinian preacher who based his original sect roughly 2000 years ago on an interpretation of the history, theosophy and creation myths of the tribes of Israel in the Middle East.. just because you have read copies of the Bible with illustrations portraying Jesus as white with blonde hair doesn’t make them accurate..whether you read them in Salt Lake City or not.. Dude…

  16. Jayne September 20, 2007 at 1:02 pm #

    Neil,what you described could be equally applied to any Australian.
    We have our own language unique to our country and even regional dialects(which is disappearing),our own socio-political institutions,an indigenous identity and a sense of belonging to the land in many traditional roles recognised as solely Australian.
    Classing non-indigenous people as parasitic is very niave as it has been recognised that indigenous peoples have contributed to the extinction of flora and fauna equally.

  17. Neil Hewett September 20, 2007 at 4:31 pm #


    I posted the UN definition of ‘indigenous’ in an attempt to encourage the exchange away from the Hamas, Hezbollah, Mohammed, Mormon, terrorist-type diversions (and by the way, I support your arguments regarding Mountain cattlemen families).

    Nevertheless, the aspect of the UN definition dealing with a subsistence-based mode of life was obviously set aside in your response.

    The distinction between indigenous disenfranchisement and the authority vested with the federal government has far-reaching implications for Australia. In my view, it bodes very poorly for the future, as it currently stands.

    I believe that it is worth considering what it is within itself, that distinguishes the indigenous relationship with the natural environment from that of the non-indigenous majority? What sustains the principle differences and what benefits does it derive?

    I have previously posted about an interesting exchange, as I recall, between the Prime Minister at the time (Keating) and Gagadju elders on the shady banks of a picturesque freshwater creek. The senior traditional owner drew his index finger through the sand to mark the symbol of the Rainbow Serpent. To the PM, he advised, this is our dreaming. With an unexpected brutality, he cut a line straight through the longitudinal centre of symmetry of the serpent’s design, converting its meaning to the instantly recognisable dollar symbol. That, Prime Minister, would seem to be the dreaming of your people.

    It wasn’t so much that I wanted to insult non-indigenous Australia, but rather to emphasise the distinction on the basis that it might consider change (or at least discussion of it).

  18. rog September 20, 2007 at 7:17 pm #

    It is easy to get bogged down in symbolism.

    Much of Australia, and more of NZ, were peopled by those who were dispossesed of their cultural lands in Scotland and elsewhere. You can debate about the whys and wherefores but the fact is that the tribalism of the celts could not be sustained. They had no security, no title and were dudded by their clan leaders. In fact, no idea.

    End of dream.

    So they took whatever work they could get, desperate times for many.

  19. Angela Downey September 20, 2007 at 11:37 pm #

    Reading Article 28 brings several things to mind –

    “lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.”

    My great grandfather came to this country from Ireland in 1840. He was what is known as part of the landless gentry. He was a baron and our famillies traditional lands had been confiscated from us by the British government because we were Irish Catholics. Those lands were thousands of acres and included a number of castles and manors. Should my people make a claim to the British govenment and the Royal Family who occupy on of those residences to restore our lands?
    Do I feel a strong emotional tie to those lands and the culture and heritage connected to them? Do I still have a knowledge of that culture and heritage? Is claimings those lands going to return that culture and heritage?
    My Great Grand father’s legacy is an Australian culture and heritage I am very proud of including 3 branches of descendants being graziers in the High Country since 1845.
    Until recently the high country were
    “lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used” by my relatives.

    And then, the Victorian Government
    “confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.”

    I hope my family’s future descendants don’t forget their proud history, culture and heritage and place a strong value on it and one day claim what is rightfully theirs once again!

    However I bet the State govt is hoping and making sure they do and that last years legislation will be the end of their traditional practices in that part of the country and thus an the end of an iconic part of Australia’s culture.

    But then maybe they do not consider us to be good enough to be traditional australians and to be custodians of those lands.
    Isn’t it our culture and heritage that makes us unique whether we are black or white?
    The Mountain Cattlemen and their ties to that country, while different from those of Koories, just as strong and emotive sense of self.
    It is part of their blood too, just as it is also part of my blood to be an Irish Catholic.
    I do not want my descendants to be landless, cultureless just as my Great Grand father did not want his kindred to be such.

    Culture is connected to land and is important no matter the religion or race you maybe or the colour of your skin.

  20. Jayne September 20, 2007 at 11:47 pm #

    Neil I know of several close family members who use their indigenous heritage to trade on purely for grants from the various govt depts.
    While they claim to have intense emotional ties to native lands – which they didn’t grow up on or live anywhere near for the majority of their lives -they have since been granted the status of Tribal Elders,along with large sums of money from the public purse.
    They have embraced very few,if any,aspects of the particular indigenous family’s way of life,they know little of the traditional stories normally handed down to future generations,they are re-writing family history to claim an ancestor was one of the “stolen” generation;in short they are getting a lot of the white fella’s $ dreaming for a pack of lies,myths and media spin while still living exactly as they have always done.
    As far as this personal example proves there are very large numbers of non-indigenous people with closer relationships to the natural environment than some indigenous people,yet the reverse racism ignores this fact.

  21. Neil Hewett September 21, 2007 at 7:21 am #


    We are an adaptable species. Humankind occupies an incredible diversity of habitats; from the arctic tundra to equatorial rainforests, from great cities to vast expanses of desert wilderness. When we speak of the Kalahari Bushmen, the Inuit, the Amazonian Indians or the Mountain Cattlemen, we are celebrating the triumphant interrelationship between people and their environment.

    Principle 22 of the RIO DECLARATION ON ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT, states: Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognise and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.

    Australia is defined by its people and their relationship with their environment. It has been triumphant in its interdependence of unique communities, bound in territorial respect for the aspirations, life and memory of their constituents. Territorialism binds individuals and families together in their common possession. It is the building block of both communities and nationhood.

    However, Australian society is becoming increasingly anti-territorial. Through popularist environmentalism, it is disintegrating. Divisive, anti-community enviro-politics peddle the perverse notion that the relationship between Australians and their natural environment should be based on divorce rather than marriage. If it were considered in terms of promoting feelings of ill-will or hostility between different groups so as to threaten the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth, then it would conform with the meaning of seditious intention under anti-terrorism legislation.

    Prime Minister Howard has previously described his offense to the idea that the extreme greens have a mortgage on concern and compassion for the forests or for the environment of this country. He has told of his long belief that it is never fair to ask a small section of the Australian people to carry the burden and the cost of implementing something that the overwhelming majority of the wider community wants. He affirmed his unshakable belief (and that of his government) that in achieving the goals of a better environment we shouldn’t throw on the scrapheap vulnerable, isolated, regional communities, their families and the people who owe their livelihoods to the activities of those communities.

    That his beliefs run contrary to the outcomes of popularist environmentalism is an undisputed fact.

    Why? Because so many of the eighty-five-or-so per cent of Australians that live in cities and major towns allow it.

  22. Schiller Thurkettle September 21, 2007 at 8:22 am #

    This thing could completely alter the landscape.

    Everyone of Roman descent in Northern Europe (using DNA testing) must go back to Italy.

    Everyone of Moorish descent on the Iberian Peninsula must be repatriated to Africa.

    Poland must be given back to Prussia.

    China should relinquish claims to all sorts of things.

    Hmmm… should Brazil be given back to the Vatican?

    Now that the United Nations has blessed all these issues, let’s have some wars!

  23. Neil Hewett September 21, 2007 at 8:39 am #


    I know of several so-called scientists that rely exclusively on grants from governments. Consultancies seeem to thrive upon public monies and bureaucracy draws so heavily upon Australia’s well-being that I’m truly astonished it is not irradiated for the malignancy that it has become. But these are failings of non-indigenous Australian society, just as those members of an indigenous extraction, draw upon an aspect of funding opportunity that Noel Pearson has argued so capably sustains bureaucracy through an obligate dependency.

    Why have we allowed such deterioration as a society? I know I have spent much time pondering this kind of question and it would seem to me that we are vulnerable to corruption because of an almost unlimited conceptual capability that is unconstrained by a common truth.

    Australian society rewards consultancies for the illusion of bridging the gap between political expedience and inclusive consultation. Australian society rewards bureaucrats for their ineptitudes and the greater number of officers under their authority. Australian society boasts ‘spin-doctoring’ as a capability of those entrusted with representative authority.

    Indigenous society, from my observations, is grounded in a common truth. Its custodial resposnibility, to protect the sanctity of the natural environment (which for them is synonymous with the spiritual environment of their ancestors and in whose eternal company they will be honoured on the basis of the fulfilment of their custodial responsoibility) is an enviable and significant element of a sustainability that has surpassed all other human cultures in the world.

    So much of this weblog is devoted to debate about sustainability. A great deal has been written about the over-emphasis of calamitous climate concern particularly where the research getting is so good.

    It is very telling that so little regard is had for Australia’s indigenous culture in addressing the sustainability woes that seem to be of such importance to so many contributors.

  24. Jayne September 21, 2007 at 9:24 am #

    The particular indigenous people I mentioned claimed money for preserving their tribal culture and native lands environment,of which they have done neither,with the express permission of the rest of the tribe.
    They have used non-indigenous peoples guilt(whipped up by inaccurate media reports) to trade for money they have not used for the purposes of their claims;this is not the fault of non-indigenous people but the self-willed actions of those claiming indigenous Tribal Elder rights.
    “Inclusive consultation” is mere lip service for the *Yorta Yorta people,who were granted limited land rights and consultation with the Vic Govt and Parks Vic.So long as they toe the Parks Vic party line of lock it up and leave it,it’s all dandy and that was a decision they chose.
    As Rog stated about the Celts “they were dudded by their clan leaders” and the same thing has happened again in Victoria.
    Self-willed actions by Tribal Elders,some of whom I know for a fact have no interest in the environment or culture except for monetary gain,who were given Tribal Elder status by the members of their particular tribe,freely.
    Not the fault of any non-indigenous person.
    *Family members are not part of the Yorta Yorta tribe.

  25. Neil Hewett September 21, 2007 at 10:27 am #


    Australian society has members of indigenous extraction with varying degrees of cultural integrity. You are describing conduct of such a segment in the same terms that I described. We are not in disagreement.

    Pre-colonial-Australian indigenous society, upheld a sustainability longer than any other culture in the history of humankind. Much of the wisdom of this cultural capability is retained within remote homeland peoples throughout Australia.

    Australia’s Westminster system of government has tremendous strengths but it also has its fatal flaws. In many respects democracy has become a cultural liability that allows population concentration to demand short-term advantage against the disregarded importance of long-term diasadvantage.

    The issue of Australia respecting the rights of its indigenous people seems to be inevitably constrained to one of absolute extremes; either indigenous people are utterly assimilated or fully restored to their former glory. Very little consideration goes into Australia assimilating into indigenous culture or banishing its population to the countries of origin.

    This is why the Declaration was so uninspired. Australia’s potential to benefit from changing its relationship with its indigenous peoples to one of genuine respect, for the undeniable attributes of adaptation and perseverance, could inspire change, over the long term, towards a more honest and sustainable Australian society.

  26. Jayne September 21, 2007 at 3:02 pm #

    I agree with what you say Neil but Australia’s indigenous people have to take responsibility for themselves,instead of relying upon guilt-fueled payments demanded in their name by tribal elders who claim they make decisions for the good of the whole tribe.
    While indigenous people have tried to retain some of their culture and adapt it to todays socio-political machinations,it has blatantly let them down with tribal elders abusing their position of trust to make contracts/deals with governing bodies with only their own goals in mind.
    Evolution within indigenous societies must be allowed,otherwise we are left with people who are used and abused,for monetary gain,by the very ones they have chosen to represent them -the situation that is emerging now.

  27. Lamna nasus September 22, 2007 at 2:11 am #

    ‘indigenous people have tried to retain some of their culture and adapt it to todays socio-political machinations,it has blatantly let them down with tribal elders abusing their position of trust to make contracts/deals with governing bodies with only their own goals in mind.’ – Jayne

    That would appear to be a rather sweeping generalisation…

  28. Pinxi September 23, 2007 at 1:47 pm #

    Thanks for this post Neil. It’s a step in thought and focus above the usual guff and your views on this important issue are always good to hear. I’d like to see more of this (don’t be disuaded by the nature of some comments above).

    rog do you have better suggestions of working definitions for these terms, or do you think we shouldn’t try to define or apply them?

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