Self-determination of Australian Aborigines

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Article 1 in Part 1 of the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development".[1]

The Australian context

In the early 1970s, the Aboriginal community established community-run organisations providing services such as child-care, health care, housing and legal services. Tangentyere Council, in Alice Springs in Northern Territory, for example, provides basic local government functions, ranging from land dealings and management of community centres to road maintenance and garbage collection.[2] The outstation movement, where Aboriginal groups in remote areas moved from large settlements back to traditional lands, was also a feature of this period.[3]

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission


The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act was passed by Federal parliament and proclaimed on 27 November 1989.[4]


The Commission, consisting of Commissioners elected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, was constituted to allocate and distribute funds to the various Aboriginal communities and to liaise with the Federal Government regarding the welfare of Aboriginal areas that required improvement and/or funding. Some argued that this was a form of self-determination or were, at the very least, initial step towards self-determination because Aboriginal people were becoming a 'self-contained' people within Australia.

However, others have argued that this was not sufficient to be described as self-determination, simply because the Federal Government retained and at times exercised its power over Aboriginal communities and ATSIC. It would seem (although this view may be disputed) that a people's independent law-making power may be the great dividing line between self-determination and merely "steps towards" self-determination.

The reason that the distinction came into dispute was because ATSIC was surrounded by controversy in 2004-2005. There were allegations of mismanagement and a few rumours circulated about substantial amounts of money that had "gone missing" or been given to third parties under unusual circumstances. Furthermore, a senior member of ATSIC was accused of rape and a trial followed. In any case, the Federal Government terminated ATSIC's commission and reassumed full control of Aboriginal welfare and allocating/distributing funding.

In terms of self-determination, this would be regarded as a backward step. But some in the Australian Federal Government have attempted to use this "mess" to argue that self-determination is destined to fail or not a viable option. However, those who believe in self-determination argue that the establishment of ATSIC and so on was not really self-determination and therefore, we should not look at recent events to dismiss the possibility of self-determination working in the future.

Native title

In addition, Aboriginal people had recently acquired native-title land rights following the Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia in the late 1980s.

Hence, self-determination has been held to be an example of an advancement of the fundamental political rights of politically bounded 'peoples' at work, but also as an example of an abstract theory that has been implemented in contexts with sometimes severe political and national conflict.

See also


  1. ^ "United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights". United Nations Human Rights. 23 March 1976. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  2. ^ "Tangentyere Council". Retrieved 22 April 2015.
  3. ^ "The Politics of the Gap: Indigenous Australians, Liberal Multiculturalism, and the End of the Self-Determination Era - KOWAL - 2008 - American Anthropologist - Wiley Online Library". American Anthropologist. 110: 338–348. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2008.00043.x. Retrieved 2015-04-20.
  4. ^ "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989 - C2005C00004". 1 Jan 2005. Retrieved 1 April 2015.

External links

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