UN Human Rights Expert highlights “astounding” rates of Indigenous incarceration

Australia must reduce the “astounding” rates of imprisonment for Indigenous peoples and step up the fight against racism, a United Nations human rights expert has concluded, at the end of an official visit.

The Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous people, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, said: “It is alarming that, while the country has adopted numerous policies to address the socio-economic disadvantage of Aboriginal peoples and those from the Torres Strait Islands, it has failed to respect their rights to self-determination and to full and effective participation in society.”

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz added: “Government policies have failed to deliver on targets in the areas of health, education and employment and have led to a growing number of people being jailed, and have resulted in an increasing number of children being removed from their homes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“High rates of incarceration were described to me as a tsunami affecting Indigenous peoples. It is a major human rights concern. The figures are simply astounding. While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up only 3% of the total population, they constitute 27% of the prison population, and much more in some prisons,” she stressed.

“The rate of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth is alarming,” Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said. “I visited Cleveland Youth Detention Centre in Townsville, Queensland, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children constitute 95% of the children detained. Many have been going from out-of-home care into detention.

“Aboriginal children are seven times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in contact with the child protection system or to be subject to abuse or neglect, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz noted.

“As already recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, I urge Australia to increase the age of criminal responsibility. Children should be detained only as a last resort.

“These children are essentially being punished for being poor and in most cases, prison will only aggravate the cycle of violence, poverty and crime. I found meeting young children, some only 12 years old, in detention the most disturbing element of my visit.

The UN expert expressed criticism of the Government programme known as the Indigenous Advancement Strategy which was initiated by the Government in 2014 and involved a large budget cut in funding for support programmes.

She said: “The implementation of the strategy has been bureaucratic, rigid and has wasted considerable resources on administration. Travelling across the country, I have repeatedly been told about its dire consequences.”

However, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said: “I want to emphasise that during my visit I have been particularly impressed and inspired by the strength of spirit and commitment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to develop innovative measures to support their own communities.”

She pointed to the number of peak organisations across a range of areas led by indigenous people. “The Government could achieve significant progress in realising the rights of Indigenous peoples if it consulted and worked much more closely with these organisations,” she said.

“I have also observed effective community-led initiatives in a range of areas including public health, housing, education, child-protection, conservation and administration of justice, which all have the potential of making immediate significant positive changes in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”

IAHA CEO Donna Murray said “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People have the solutions which merit full consideration and support from all levels of Government and more broadly in the health sector. Through our lens, communities know how important it is to break down silos and work across the many cultural and social determinants that influence our health and wellbeing”

“IAHA joined the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and our partners to deliver the Redfern Statement to Government in February calling on Governments to forge a new relationship with our communities, to work with us in ensuring out First Peoples have access to their fundamental human rights and rights as Indigenous Peoples.

“The Redfern Statement focuses on the holistic approaches needed across sectors to address the cultural and social determinants and therefore we echo the concerns raised by Ms Tauli-Corpuz about critical impacts of Australia’s juvenile justice system. We have joined with our partners on the Close the Gap Steering Committee to call on Government to include targets on closing the gap in Indigenous incarceration” said Ms Murray.  

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz ended her two-week visit to Australia with a press conference in Barton in the Australian Capital Territory where she presented her initial findings and recommendations. She will present a comprehensive report to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2017.

The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoplesMs. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Philippines), is a human rights activist working on Indigenous peoples’ rights. Her work for more than three decades has been focused on movement building among indigenous peoples and also among women, and she has worked as an educator-trainer on human rights, development and indigenous peoples in various contexts. She is a member of the Kankana-ey, Igorot indigenous peoples in the Cordillera Region in the Philippines.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

See the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 


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