by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Law: UN ruling used by local critics to hammer Howard Government
, August 12, 2000
Mandatory sentencing laws in the Northern Territory and Western Australia are once again the focus of international claims that Australia is a racist country, rhetoric readily seized on by Green, Democrat and ALP politicians back home to criticise the Howard Government.
Cherie Booth, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has accepted a brief on behalf of 22 year old Northern Territory citizen, Jamie Wurramara, to pursue a claim on his behalf before the United Nations Human Rights Committee under the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
It was this mechanism that was used by Nick Toonen to complain about Tasmania’s anti-sodomy laws. The extraordinary finding of the UN Committee in that case that the word “privacy” in the ICCPR included a right to sodomy led to the passage by the Federal Parliament of the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act establishing a right to sexual “freedom” in Australia.
Mr Wurramara was mandatorily sentenced to one year’s imprisonment after his third burglary offence and 27th conviction in all.
Among the ironies in this development pointed out by Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun (July 24) are that Britain itself has mandatory sentencing laws imposing a three year sentence for the third domestic burglary offence, and that Britain (along with 60 other signatories to the ICCPR) has declined to sign up to the First Optional Protocol. Is this why Ms Booth has to look for clients from the Antipodes?
Cherie Booth will not appear before the Human Rights Committee for Mr Wurramara until later this year.
In the meantime Australia is already under fire from the Committee which finally got around to considering Australia’s latest report on its compliance with the ICCPR, tabled in August 1998. Despite this two year delay by the Committee, one “expert” told Australia off for lodging the report late! Three senior public servants were flown to Geneva to be interrogated by the “experts” on the Committee about Australia’s report.
Another “expert” asserted that mandatory sentencing laws “were arbitrarily operating largely on indigenous people”, even though the laws apply to all Northern Territory and Western Australia residents.
The Australian delegation was also read a lesson on indigenous land rights, with an “expert” saying “it was more important that Aboriginal people were misunderstood [rather than that they were underprivileged]. The meaning of land to indigenous people could not be interpreted according to economic and land ownership concepts. For the Aboriginal people, the concept of land was beyond individual ownership; it was rather a collective expression of a community living together. For that reason, the thinking of Aboriginal people had clashed with the thinking of Australians of European origin who thought of individual possession of land. A convergence of both schools of thought should find a common denominator to resolve this problem”. Better expressed
What, if anything, does this concretely mean in terms of native title legislation? Do we need to pay public servants to go to Geneva to hear this view, more clearly expressed by Aboriginal land rights activists and their supporters here in Australia?
The Committee concluded by urging Australia to review its mandatory sentencing laws, which it claimed were discriminatory, and to do more to address the “stolen generation” issue.
These latest international criticisms of Australia’s human rights record by a distant United Nations Committee come just before Cabinet considers the report of a whole-of-government review of the operation of the United Nations treaty committee system as it affects Australia.
This review announced last March by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, is apparently completed and now being considered by the relevant Ministers before final presentation to Cabinet.
It will be interesting to see whether the Howard Government is prepared to bring an end to the charade of these regular reports to the so-called “expert” committees of the United Nations and to brave the wrath of the ALP, Green and Democrat politicians — already planning further bills in the Senate to give effect to the UN Committee’s findings on mandatory sentencing — and their hangers-on in the media and the rest of the chattering classes.
Ordinary Australians would no doubt applaud any such move by the Howard Government to restore national sovereignty and dignity.