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Press statement delivered by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Mr. Mutuma Ruteere on 5 May 2016 in Canberra, Australia

5 December 2016

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we are gathered upon today and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and future.

I undertook a visit to Australia from 28 November to 5 December 2016, which is a follow-up visit of my predecessor in 2001. During my visit, I held meetings in Canberra, ACT, Melbourne, Victoria, Sydney, New South Wales and Alice Springs, Northern Territory. I met with representatives of the Australian Government, State and Territorial Governments, Members of parliament and Senators, judges, representatives of the security forces, the Australian Human Rights Commission and State Human Rights Commissions, indigenous organizations, United Nations entities and international organizations, and non-governmental organizations as well as community members and other groups and individuals working in the field of racism. Although I did not have the chance to meet Ministers from the Australian Government, I was able to meet with Assistant Ministers as well as State and Territorial Ministers and high-level officials from many Departments at all levels.

I would like to thank the Australian Government for the invitation extended to my mandate, the organization of a rich and varied program of visits, the full cooperation and the insightful and rich discussions. In particular, I would like to extend my appreciation to the Department of Social Services for the coordination of the visit. I am also grateful to the different Federal, State and territorial agencies for their cooperation. Finally I am indebted to my interlocutors from civil society and communities who have been very helpful to my visit. 

I first would like to point out how impressed I am by the diversity of the Australian people and the strong commitment of the Government to its policy on multiculturalism. Australia continues to receive a high number of migrants every year under the skilled labour scheme as well as the re-settlement of recognized refugees from war-torn countries and offers commendable resources and programmes at various levels for their integration so that they can settle into their new communities as smoothly as possible. This is reflected in the fact that one out of two Australians is either born overseas or has one parent born outside the country and that large cities such as Sydney and Melbourne reflect the diversity and openness of Australia’s society.

I have noticed the relatively good integration of migrants into the Australian society, where numerous social programmes have been put in place at the various levels of Government particularly in areas such as housing, education, health, employment and welfare services.  This is complemented by a vibrant civil society and numerous multicultural and ethnic organizations which help migrants and refugees settle in Australia and who provide a wide-range of programmes and initiatives of their own.

I have also been informed about the ongoing discussion and consultation on the Constitutional recognition of the place and rights of indigenous peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal people and the Torres Straight Islanders. I understand that consultations are currently underway nationally and I welcome the bi-partisan commitment of the Australian Government as well as the State and Territorial Governments to come to such an agreement in the near future.

I have noted with satisfaction, the exemplary work of many independent and state institutions dedicated to addressing the questions of racism, racial discrimination and related forms of discrimination in Australia. In addition, Australia has ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and many years ago enacted the Racial Discrimination Act.  I am also aware that Australia has developed and is implementing a National Anti-Racism Strategy which seeks to address racism in all its different forms. Given the important place that sports occupies in Australian society, I have noted with interest, the important efforts to address the problem of racism in sports and in particular the “It Stops With Me” campaign and the “Play by the Rules” programme by the Australian Human Commission in partnership with various sports actors.

I was also made aware of the Commonwealth government’s annual “Closing the Gap” report that seeks to ensure a whole of government approach in reducing the disadvantages and addressing the historical marginalization of indigenous peoples.

However, I have also been made aware of the challenges of continuing racial discrimination faced by indigenous people as well as other groups in Australia. I am aware that indigenous people continue to be incarcerated at a disproportionate rate. I am particularly concerned about the incarceration of juveniles from the indigenous communities and their treatment by the criminal justice system. I welcome the establishment of a Royal Commission of inquiry into incarceration and detention of indigenous youths and look forward to its findings. From the diverse conversation and consultations that I held, I recommend a re-examination of the criminal justice system and to embrace alternatives to detention and avoid mandatory sentences. The current policing of indigenous communities is too punitive and need an urgent change as its consequences can only lead to even further devastation of these communities. The lessons of modern policing that Australia has pioneered in policing non-indigenous sections of the population need to be harnessed to address the growing crisis of incarceration of individuals of indigenous descent.

I have been informed that indigenous Australians are three times more likely to be unemployed than non-indigenous. Although I have been made aware of numerous initiatives, both at the federal, State and Territorial levels to reverse the situation, such as Indigenous Engagement Networks, Indigenous Business Australia and indigenous procurement from Government agencies, to name a few, the fact remains that in remote areas employment is rare and indigenous communities remain peripheral to the economic life and with limited benefits from economic progress and prosperity.

I am very interested in the “Closing the Gap” initiative which has now been underway for a number of years and sets targets for progress in indigenous health, employment, education and housing, among others. Although undeniable progress has been achieved over the last years especially in the health sector, I am concerned that there are no justice targets where indigenous people are most disproportionately represented in incarceration.

I have also heard about police profiling against indigenous peoples and discrimination in the private sector, whether it is in employment or in the provision or access to goods and services. I have noticed that there are very few indigenous police officers and indigenous communities are patrolled by non-indigenous law enforcement officials who have little integration in the communities they are intended to serve. I was told of the humiliation that indigenous peoples sometimes face in every-day life, in some parts of the country, whether it is in being singled out for security checks at shopping places or whether it is in the enforcement of alcohol control rules.

I have also noted first–hand from my visit to remote indigenous communities that indigenous education, particularly of indigenous languages and cultures, remains non-existent or very rare, even at the primary level. Although education curriculum remains a State/territorial competence, I call upon the authorities to develop appropriate curriculum for the indigenous communities serviced by the education departments.

In my conversations with civil society organizations, the Australian Human Rights Commission and their State equivalents, but also with State Governments and members of the Joint parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, the issue of section 18 C) of the Racial Discrimination Act which provides protection to victims of racist speech has come to the forefront. While I understand there is debate within society at large about removing, amending or maintaining this provision, section 18 C) sets the tone of an open, inclusive and multicultural Australia which respects and values the diversity of its peoples and protects indigenous and migrants against bigots and extremists who have become more vocal in Australia and other parts of the world. Removing this provision would undermine the efforts undertaken by the various levels of Governments for an inclusive Australia and open the door to racist and xenophobic hate speech which has been quite limited thanks to this provision. In my conversations with civil society, community and indigenous organizations, as well with State Governments, I found unambiguous support for this section and therefore call upon for this section to remain so that the Human Rights Commission, as well as the Courts, can continue to play their role in interpreting its provisions.

I am concerned about some remarks made by elected politicians about newly-arrived migrants, and in particular against Muslims. I have been made aware that xenophobic hate speech has been on the rise, leading to the creation of a negative perception of migrants, particularly Muslims and persons of African descent. I also heard of continuing fears, threats and incidents of anti-semitism faced by members of the Jewish community in Australia. While I applaud the Prime Minister’s recent unequivocal statement against racism, I note with concern that some populist politicians, cheered on by sections of mainstream media, continue to stereotype and fan hostility against certain categories of migrants.  I call upon mainstream political leaders to denounce and censure this kind of divisive and racist rhetoric particularly when made by members of their own political parties and urge those sections of the media to resist the tempting descent into racist, and xenophobic stereotyping rhetoric and scapegoating.

I am also particularly concerned about attacks made by some politicians against the Australian Human Rights Commission and in particular its Chair, Professor Gillian Triggs. The Commission recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and is well-known and highly respected internationally and serves as a model for countries setting up such a National Human Rights Institution. The fact that the Commission handles more than 20 000 inquiries and 2000 complaints each year, the vast majority resolved successfully to the agreement of both parties involves, serves as a positive example of the functioning of democratic institutions in Australia. During my visit, I was able to confirm the exemplary work done by this Commission, particularly with respect to racism and racial discrimination.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The elimination of racism, xenophobia and discrimination will not happen unless it is led by the most senior political leadership and unless institutions such as the media play a constructive role of promoting multiculturalism. To this end, I recommend that the government, at the highest levels, as well as the leadership of other political parties adopt clear, strong and unequivocal positions against racism and racial discrimination.

Finally, I call upon the Australian Government to recognize constitutionally the role and rights of its indigenous peoples, the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, and to seize this unique opportunity of reconciliation to consider a broader Human Rights Bill which would ensure protection against racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination to all, in the form of a Constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I will present a more comprehensive report on this visit to the Human Rights Council next year.

I thank you for your kind attention and will be pleased to answer any questions you may have.