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Australian Aboriginal Communities Under Threat of Closure Take Their Case to the UN

With 150 communities facing the prospect of losing power, water and essential services, a group of indigenous leaders are hoping the international community can come to their aid.
April 24, 2015, 11:51am
Photo by Basil D Soufi

Over 150 Aboriginal communities in Australia could be forced to shutdown as the government has cut off services to their land. Now community leaders have taken their fight to the United Nations, calling for the UN rapporteur on indigenous rights to investigate the way Australian governments have handled the closures.

Remote Aboriginal communities across Western Australia (WA) will be cut off from electricity, water and all basic services on July 1 after the federal government cut finding for them, and the WA state government refused to fill the gap. As many as 278 communities are being assessed, and over 150 are scheduled to have their switches flicked off.

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"The forced closure of indigenous communities [is] attempting once again to separate people from their land and culture," according to Anthony Watson, chairman on the Kimberley Lands Council (KLC), who spoke to VICE News after appearing at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York.

"It's my first time here, and I've been surprised by the amount of support we've got," he said, relaying that indigenous delegates from around the world had been extremely enthusiastic in helping push the case that his organization had brought before the forum. "It's because in this day and age, people know that this kind of thing happening in a country like Australia shouldn't be tolerated."

The KLC represents the traditional owners of the lands in the northwestern Kimberley region, home to most of West Australia's remote indigenous communities. They most likely will bear the brunt of the closures, and have decided to take the issue of indigenous community closures to the UN forum — which is running between April 20 and May 1 — after being repeatedly blocked from engaging with the political process domestically.

Related: Aboriginal 'lifestyle choice' to live in Australia's outback will no longer be supported. Read more here.

Last month, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said indigenous people were making a "lifestyle choice" if they lived in remote areas.

"What we can't do is endlessly subsidies lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have," he said.

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The KLC's submission to the UN questioned whether such a political stance was against the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, which includes the right not to be assimilated and the right not to be removed from traditional lands.

"We would hope that no state that purports to endorse the declaration can maintain that the rights embodied within that declaration are a lifestyle choice," reads the submission.

As well as support from indigenous delegates, Anthony related that Victoria Tauli Corpuz, the UN rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, had taken an interest in pursuing the case.

"I believe she will come to Australia to visit us in the Kimberley," Anthony said. "We look forward to engaging further."

The possibility of a UN investigation would probably earn the ire of Australia's prime minister who said in March that Australians were "sick of being lectured to by the United Nations." The outburst came after the special rapporteur on torture found Australia was violating the rights of asylum seekers, including children, who it has imprisoned indefinitely in detention centers on a number of Pacific islands.

"Our calls in Australia for engagement, discussion and empowerment have fallen on deaf ears," Anthony continued, explaining the KLC had no choice but take its issues to the international community. "It's shameful," he added.

So far, Aboriginal lands councils have not been privy to any consultations with Australian politicians, despite federal funding for the communities coming to an end on July 1 and community closures believed to begin by the end of the year.

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Anthony explained that his organization had, and continues, to invite West Australian Premier Colin Barnett to a summit of indigenous leaders to discuss the closures.

Instead of receiving a reply, the offer was dismissed in an interview givenin the state capital, Perth.

"We want to see Aboriginal people succeed, we want to see their children have a safe life and a fair chance at life through a good education," he said.

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell

Photo via Wikimedia Commons