Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples

Garth Nettheim


The paper begins by noting the low level of reference to Indigenous Australians in the Commonwealth Constitution at the start of Federation, and goes on to discuss the limits to what was achieved by the 1967 amendments. The situation represents a marked contrast with the USA and Canada in terms of treaties and constitutional recognition.

In Australia, particularly during the period of the ‘Reconciliation’ process in the 1990s, important steps were taken by Indigenous Australians to identify items of ‘unfinished business’ in a ‘Statement of Indigenous Rights’. But there has been limited progress to meet these aspirations. And Australian law still lacks a tradition of recognition of human rights generally, let alone Indigenous rights.

International law, too, largely lacked recognition of human rights, generally prior to the adoption in 1945 of the Charter of the United Nations. The brief references in the Charter were subsequently developed in a range of declarations and of treaties. These applied to people generally, with scant reference to Indigenous peoples. But, since the 1970s, there has been growing international recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples under existing declarations and treaties. Since the 1990s, in particular, the UN system has established
specific mechanisms for addressing such issues. On 13 September 2007, the General Assembly finally adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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