The UN’s indigenous peoples’ rights expert on Thursday urged all Australians to back a reform that would recognise Indigenous people in the constitution for the first time.
The October 14 referendum aimed at elevating the rights of Indigenous people, whose ancestors were in Australia for 60,000 years before British colonial rule began in the late 1700s, the right to be consulted on policies that affect them — a so-called “Voice”.
Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, issued a joint statement with Surya Deva, special rapporteur on the right to development, urging Australians to support the proposal.
“The First Peoples of Australia have a right under international human rights law to participate in decision-making that affects them,” the experts said.
By voting ‘yes’, “Australians will help the government fulfil its human rights obligations”.
The initiative will pave the way to overcoming the “systemic discrimination and inequalities that have undermined the ability of Indigenous Peoples to realise their rights to development and self-determination”, they said.
UN special rapporteurs are unpaid, independent experts who are mandated by the Human Rights Council. They do not speak for the United Nations but report their findings to it.
The two experts said Indigenous people experience higher rates of disease and lower life expectancy due to lack of access to health services, proper housing and nutritious food.
Poor education and employment opportunities lead to poverty and social problems, they added.
Proponents of the constitutional amendment say creating a permanent constitutional body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to advise Canberra would help craft policies that work.
Opponents say the plan lacks detail, creates unnecessary bureaucracy, opens a racial divide, confers special privileges on Indigenous people and would do little to improve their lot.
“The fulfilment of Indigenous Peoples’ right to Indigenous-led institutions should not be presented as a cost or an unjustified privilege, but rather as a matter of fundamental human rights and justice for historical wrongs,” the UN experts said.
They also said the initiative would support the Indigenous people’s “quest for justice” by amending punitive laws in areas such as child protection, law enforcement and corrections, native title and cultural heritage “that continue to discriminate against them”.