Australia’s Indigenous incarceration rates are among the worst in the developed world. But it is in the increasing rates of child removal that Australia stands out as being particularly behind other nations, the UN special rapporteur on Indigenous rights says.
In a preliminary report delivered to the government yesterday after a 14-day visit, special rapporteur (investigator) Victoria Tauli-Corpuz highlighted the growing Indigenous incarceration rate as an area of serious concern.
She told Guardian Australia that child protection policies, which saw Indigenous children removed from their families at almost 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous children, contributed to the numbers in detention.
“The thing that makes it different in Australia is this child protection system where they are taken away from their parents and brought to other families.
“I think that’s the one that I find quite different compared to what I have seen for instance in the US,” she said. “I think that’s quite unique here in Australia.”
Tauli-Corpuz toured the Cleveland youth detention centre in Townsville and Bandyup women’s prison in Perth.
She said both the rates of incarceration and the crimes for which people were being incarcerated were alarming.
“Some of the reasons for them being incarcerated are very petty,” she said.
“I went to Cleveland, I spoke with the young children there, and one boy was like 12 years old, he just stole a fruit, and on that basis he was incarcerated and then he just kept going back.”
Tauli-Corpuz is the second Indigenous special rapporteur to conduct an official visit since Australia signed the declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples in 2008.
She said she found it “disturbing” that so few of the recommendations made by her predecessor in 2009 had been implemented, and that the bulk of recommendations from the 1991 royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and the 1996 Bringing Them Home report, among other recommendations, had not been enacted.
She also made a number of her own recommendations, which she said would be necessary for Australia to win a seat on the UN human rights council.
“If those actions are taken then maybe they have the justification to sit in the human rights council,” she said.
“But if there are no good, serious efforts to implement some of the repeated recommendations then I think it’s not … it doesn’t speak well of having a country being there.”
The visit coincided, rather awkwardly, with a parliamentary vote in which the Turnbull government sought to remove protections against insulting, harassing or humiliating people on the grounds of their race.
The proposed change was stopped in the Senate but Tauli-Corpuz said the highly publicised debate sent a message to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about their position and value in Australian society.
“What they really feel is so, so, helpless,” she said. “They feel so frustrated …
“There are all these different recommendations for royal commission reports, etc, and they are looking up to the implementation of these recommendations, but nothing is happening …
“And in everything they have to push, they have to fight for it, nothing ever comes to them. They have to fight for every little bit of their rights…
“The thing that governments do generally is to really bureaucratise the system. They put in place very complex bureaucratic processes that Indigenous peoples will not be able to hurdle,” she said.
Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion defended the government’s performance. While he welcomed Tauli-Corpuz’s visit and her preliminary report, it skipped over more positive developments.
The final report is due in September.
Rapporteur: a person appointed by an organisation to investigate a problem or attend a meeting and to report on it.