Australia Indigenous leaders file UN complaint over proposed heritage bill
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Australia Indigenous leaders file UN complaint over proposed heritage bill

A group of Indigenous Australian leaders have filled a complaint with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination calling it incompatible with Australia’s international obligations.

The complaint comes one year after the legal destruction of historically and culturally significant rock shelters by the mining company Rio Tinto in the Pilbara region of Western Australia (WA) that sparked protests across the nation.

The state government had given approval to the mining company to detonate explosives on the site in 2013. The explosion destroyed two rock shelters that had evidence of human occupation dating back 46 000 years. Rio Tinto apologized for the “distress” caused, but has yet to pay reparations.

The draft legislation is intended to replace to outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 and establish a “modern approach to protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage in Western Australia” according to the WA government website. The bill establishes an Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council (ACH) that oversees and acts as a proxy for consultations between the Australian government and Indigenous groups. The draft bill includes a mandate for the ACH council to promote public awareness of Indigenous cultural heritage within the state.

While the ACH council facilitates a bridge of communication between two parties, it ultimately answers to the state. The draft legislation also fails to establish a veto for Indigenous groups on proposed developments that could harm cultural sites, raising concerns that Indigenous voices will go unheeded. The draft legislation does make it easier for groups to establish Aboriginal Cultural sites, but declarations on what qualifies as a protected area ultimately remain with the ACH council.

The draft legislation aims to align with the Native Title Act 1993, according to the WA government, including establishing mechanisms for recognizing and protecting Aboriginal title as its main objective.

Australia previously made a series of voluntary pledges to improve the relationship between the government and Indigenous people living within its territory. Section 4.5 of the pledges seeks to “realize the economic, social and cultural rights of all citizens” and recognizes there is work to be done “particularly [with] Indigenous Australians”. Section 4.6 recognizes the “need for a collaborative approach” and “improving approaches to local and regional decision-making.”