Prominent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson is taking Australia to the UN Commissioner on Human Rights representing Norfolk Island. Home to about 1,700 people, the tiny island is about halfway between New Zealand and Australia. It was largely independent of the mainland until 2015, when the Turnbull Government took control of it. The UN complaint terms this takeover a "recolonisation."
The case, filed on behalf of Indigenous Norfolk resident Albert Fletcher Buffett, claims the Australian government has put the language and culture of the island's Indigenous people at risk. "The government has commandeered the radio station and closed the maternity wing of the hospital—an insidious step to deter births on the island and force women to give birth in Australia,” the complaint states.
To fight the case, Robertson commissioned a study from Peter Mühlhäusler, a professor of linguistics at the University of Adelaide. Mühlhäusler found Norfolk Islanders are a distinct ethnicity, and have a unique language. The Indigenous people of Norfolk are Pitcairn Islanders, who emigrated to the island in 1856. They make up about 20 percent of Norfolk's population, and speak Norfuk—an endangered language, according to the UN, which is a mix of 18th century English and Tahitian.
“Intermarriages with mainland Australians and Australian assimilation policies have not significantly weakened the distinctiveness of the Norfolk Islanders of Pitcairn descent,” Mühlhäusler's report found.
However, the Turnbull Government is pushing back against Norfolk's calls for independence. Since Australia took control in 2015, services have improved on the island with GP visits jumping 60 percent after Medicare was introduced, according to Australia's minister for territories and local government John McVeigh. But ever since the change of power, Norfolk Islanders have been fighting to regain their independence.
The human rights complaint from Norfolk comes as Australia has been pushed to defend its record once again at the UN, this time during its first session sitting on the UN Human Rights Council. "No state has a perfect human rights record," said Lachlan Strahan, charge d’affaires at Australia’s UN mission in Geneva. The council has recently criticised Australia for its offshore detention regime, holdings kids as young as 10 criminally responsible, and forcibly sterilising some women with intellectual disabilities.
As for Norfolk's fight, having a high profile lawyer like Robertson on board may push things ahead. But it's likely to be a long process with the territories minister, John McVeigh, admitting to the Guardian that he hadn't even read the complaint yet.