Monday, March 26, 2007

Human Rights in Australia - the rights of Aboriginal Australians continue to be violated!

This blog has focused on external human rights violations perpetrated by the Howard Government.

I admit this is somewhat blinkered as, on reflection, a huge proportion of indigenous Australians 'seek asylum' internally from a paternalistic and culturally distorted mindset that dominates the Federal Government's grasp of their reality. 'Dispossession','displacement', 'colonization', 'acculturation', 'marginalization' and 'disempowerment' resonate throughout the history of government and Aboriginal community relations. The situation under the Howard Government has gone backward. The core principle of self-determination has been countered by a concerted strategy to deny Aboriginal people a distinctive identity and to devalue traditional communal coping strategies.

Writing for Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTAR), John Burnheim, identifies the crux of the problem is us (ie. mainstream white society). We discover that facile generalizations are not limited to mainstream perceptions of 'refugees' or the 'Muslim community'. We have been practicing on generations of 'Aboriginals':

"Obviously, we brought about the present situation. Put aside questions of guilt. Look at the matter constructively. Above all, look at it through Indigenous eyes.

The first thing to grasp is that, beyond the aggregated and averaged statistics, there is a vast array of Indigenous perspectives and situations. What constitutes a problem differs greatly from community to community, family to family and even within families. To a significant extent this is a result of the destruction of traditional communities and their ways of life.

More fundamentally, the facile assumption that there is a single Aboriginal people is completely wrong. Geographically as distant as Russia and Spain, Aboriginal peoples spoke a host of different languages, developed different beliefs, practices and forms of life. While they are conscious of shared predicaments, their cultural identities are not a matter of minor variations on a single set of themes, but of a variety of very specific cultures with certain resemblances between them. Focussing on their distance from us we think of them as much the same simply because they all lack features that we look for as evidence of "advancement". We think of them almost entirely in negative terms, as lacking agriculture, domesticated animals for transport and food, houses, vehicles, writing, science and technology.

Among the most salient and practically significant of these absent features is political authority. Invaders dealing with Maori or with American peoples found established political authorities with which to negotiate. They made treaties and alliances and waged wars in the ways to which they were accustomed, in spite of enormous differences in beliefs and customs. The authorities on both sides played the political power games according to rules that were well enough understood for it to be quite clear when they were broken, and that breaking them was a matter of betrayal, not just misunderstanding.

In Australian societies nobody was empowered to make law or bind the community by treaty. The law was enshrined in custom, precedent and ritual. The authority of the elders was simply a matter of their longer memories. Decision within a group was always a matter of consensus reached by talking things through. Implementation of decisions came about through a shared understanding of what was agreed.

That such a social formation allowed a great deal of freedom and and security, based on a very sophisticated set of relationships with its natural and social environment was incomprehensible to the Europeans. They were quite certain that they had nothing to learn from the natives and that the latter were incapable of learning from them.

On the other hand, the way of life of the invaders appeared so brutal, so arbitrarily artificial and so onerous to the Indigenous peoples that they found it utterly repugnant and often incomprehensible. Where the Maori and the North Americans often found uses for the weapons and tools the whites brought, the Australians had no use for them. The coming of the white men brought death to the Aboriginal peoples through mysterious diseases and arbitrary violence. The scale of the forces at the disposal of the invaders pulverised resistance. Of the countless changes imposed upon the native Australians only cheap foods and alcohol held any attraction for them.

When, later on, they were dragooned into "education" they soon discovered that they were being trained for the least congenial occupations in the white economy and taught to reject completely their own way of life. When, belatedly, they were offered medical treatment they had good reason in terms of their experience to feel that it was alien, intrusive and very likely harmful. When they were offered welfare it was always in inappropriate and demeaning forms.

It seems hardly possible to overestimate the degree of disillusionment and despair that many Aboriginal individuals and communities feel. It is hardly surprising that they have so frequently taken over the escapes that individualistic white society offers: violence, crime, alcohol and suicide or that their own traditional resources have often proved incapable of dealing with these new epidemics. Their responses are inevitably fragmented."

Sound familiar?

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