Amnesty and Indigenous Rights: A History

Amnesty International Australia has been working alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to defend Indigenous rights for over a decade. August 9 is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and we think it’s the perfect time to look back on the significant contributions and progress Amnesty has been part of, together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

2007

July: A motion was passed at the Amnesty Western Australia Annual General Meeting (AGM), then at the National AGM to undertake domestic Indigenous rights work in the Northern Territory, following the ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ Report.

2008

January – July: Noongar activist Helen Ulli Corbett appointed as Amnesty International’s first Aboriginal National Board member. Ulli was replaced by Ngadju Noongar woman Sheena Graham (July 2008 – Nov 2010) and then re-appointed July 2010 – June 2013.

2010

Amnesty International’s first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) was launched, largely focused on human rights education of our staff and Board. We set up a RAP project team to ensure ongoing progress on the goals and commitments set out in our successive RAPs and other reconciliation plans.

Amnesty hosted rights-holders Barbara Shaw, Richard Downs, Janine Gertz and Stephen Ross to advocate and host a side event on the Northern Territory Intervention, focusing on the income management and homelands.

2010 – 2015: Amnesty worked with volunteers, interns and law firm Clayton Utz to review the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) and shared the findings with the Change the Record Coalition, who host the work on their website.

2011

Amnesty worked with impacted communities in Utopia in the Northern Territory and launched the Homelands campaign, advocating for their right to remain on their ancestral homelands. Amnesty Secretary-General Irene Khan came out to Australia to launch the report, and later that year the team took rights holder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

An artist in Utopia drawing in sand about exploration on their sacred lands. © April Pyle
An artist in Utopia drawing in sand about exploration on their sacred lands. © April Pyle

March: The Commonwealth and Territory governments committed to supporting NT homelands, announcing $221 million dollars in funding over the following 10 years, ensuring basic services like clean water, garbage collection and sanitation.

2013

We successfully campaigned to have children in Western Australia moved from the Hakea Adult Prison.

2014

We campaigned alongside many other organisations to #SaveTheRDA when amendments were threatened to the Racial Discrimination Act, arguing successfully for no changes.

2014 – 2016: We campaigned against the forced eviction and demolition of the Oombulgurri community in the Kimberley, supporting the SOS Blak Australia protest movement to stop further community closures and then monitored the reforms underway.

Tammy Solonec in community at Oombulgurri. © Amnesty International/Mareike Ceranna
Tammy Solonec in community at Oombulgurri. © Amnesty International/Mareike Ceranna

2015

We spoke out about the horrors of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the NT following reports of tear gassing children.

March: Amnesty made a submission to the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Reform, calling for the removal of discriminatory clauses from the Australian Constitution.

June: We launched “Community Is Everything”, a long ­term campaign to end the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the criminal justice system. We released a National report — ‘A Brighter Tomorrow’ — with Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty and a report on Western Australia, ‘There is Always a Brighter Future’, both calling for law reform and Indigenous-led solutions.

We spoke out about the horrors of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the NT following reports of tear gassing children.

2015 – 2016: AIA’s second Innovate RAP was endorsed by Reconciliation Australia.

2016

Amnesty became a signatory to the Family Matters Campaign, run by the peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocacy body for Indigenous children, SNAICC.

April: We worked with the Change the Record Coalition to raise attention on the issue of over-representation on the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC).

July: Wannyi Kalkadoon lawyer and advocate Sandra Creamer appointed to Amnesty’s national board (the third Aboriginal Board member).

August: The Royal Commission into Youth Detention in the Northern Territory was convened following the exposure of abuse on the 4 Corners Show, “Australia’s Shame”. Amnesty seconded an Indigenous Rights Campaigner to the Aboriginal Peoples Organisation of the Northern Territory (APO/NT) to assist with their submission and inform our work.

September: We launched our third research report for the Community is Everything campaign, Heads Held High, in Brisbane about the Queensland youth justice system. As a result, we saw a number of huge wins, keeping more kids in communities and out of detention.

Late 2016: the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act came up for debate again, with the announcement of the inquiry “Freedom of Speech in Australia”. We made a submission on 23 December 2016 and did advocacy in March 2017 when the amendments were debated, resulting in only minor amendments to the Act and the preservation of section 18C.

2017

April – September: We worked with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on her visit and report on Australia, which made many recommendations in alignment with our campaign, and in September took the Community is Everything campaign to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

May: We worked in partnership with organisations in Victoria to successfully have children moved from the Barwon adult prison.

During National Reconciliation Week we launched our Cultural Competency online training modules.

Our Stretch Reconciliation Action Plan 2017-2020 was launched with events in Action Centres around the country.

Late 2017 – 2018: We formally joined the growing movement calling on the Government to #ChangetheDate of our national day so that all Australians can join the celebrations. In 2018 Amnesty staff were given the option to work on 26 January and nominate an alternative day to substitute for the public holiday.

One Day in Fremantle, 2017. © AI
One Day in Fremantle, 2017. © AI

Together we have done some incredible work to protect and promote Indigenous rights, but there is so much more to be done!

Amnesty International is independent of Government and does not take any Government funding. In order to maintain our work we need your support.

To get involved and support Amnesty International’s Indigenous rights work:

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