Elizabeth Isaac

In 2017, following an extensive Indigenous led and designed dialogue process, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was gifted to the Australian people. It highlights the ongoing sovereignty of First Nations Australians and the continual strength of their culture and connection to country since ‘time immemorial’. Through the pillars of Voice, Treaty, and Truth, it is a call for greater self-determination for First Nations Australians.

On a national level, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is deeply significant. It reflects informed consensus from First Nations Australians and provides an actionable guide to Australian leaders and people, about the needs and desires of our First Peoples. Significantly, the Uluru Statement from the Heart presents an innovative opportunity for reform, to bring Australia closer to its international human rights commitments.

Australia is party to seven international human rights treaties. Under these agreements, Australia commits to protecting and ensuring the realisation of human rights nationally. In 2009, two years after its adoption by the United Nations, Australia formally endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). In the global human rights framework, UNDRIP is a key document on Indigenous rights. Based primarily on the notion of self-determination, it outlines a specific set of rights which are afforded to First Nations people globally and sets a global standard for the realisation and protection of self-determination. Despite the active involvement of First Nations delegates in the writing process of UNDRIP, Australia has continually failed to meet the standards set out in UNDRIP, and as outlined in the Uluru Statement, Australia’s First Peoples still face difficulty in fully realising their human rights.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart provides an opportunity to address this. Where UNDRIP provides the international community with a standard for self-determination, the Uluru Statement from the Heart provides Australia with a clear, actionable guide for moving forward nationally.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for the establishment of a Voice to parliament, to be enshrined in the constitution. This has the potential to provide First Nations Australians with an effective mechanism to have a say and be involved in discussions and decisions on matters that impact them. The enshrining of the Voice in the constitution would strengthen the capacity for sustainable self-determination and support the evolution of a treaty. It could also act as a protective measure to ensure that any pending policy and legislation is in line with international human rights standards and work in the best interest of First Nations Australians. The implementation of a Voice to parliament would allow for meaningful engagement with the standards outlined in UNDRIP, such as the right to be free from discrimination (Article Two), the right to self-determination (Article Three), the right to exercise self-governance on matters that relate to their affairs (Article Four) and the right to participate fully in political institutions of the state whilst maintaining their own (Article Five) as outlined in UNDRIP.

By extension, the Uluru Statement calls for the establishment of a Makarrata Commission, a commission based on the notion of ‘coming together after a struggle’, which would aid in a process of truth telling and agreement making between First Nations Australians, governments, and the community. In addition to the rights mentioned above, a Makarrata Commission could support the realisation of other rights set out in the UNDRIP, such as the right to dignity, and the combating of discrimination through truth telling (Article Fifteen), the right to develop their own political, political and economic institutions (Article 20) and the right to consultation with the State on legislative or administrative matters that impact them (Article Nineteen). Moreover, UNDRIP emphasises the right to participate in decision making, and to ensuring that decision making bodies and/or institutions are wholly self-determined (Article Eighteen), as well as the right for First Nations people to determine their own priorities and strategies for development (Article Twenty-Three).

More broadly, acting upon the requests of the Uluru Statement would bring Australia into alignment with Articles Thirty-Seven, Thirty-Eight and Forty of UNDRIP, in which nation states agree to doing what is necessary to ensure the rights outlined in UNDRIP are protected and enforced in their national context.

Ultimately, the Uluru Statement calls for First Nations people to have a greater role in discussions that impact them, and their communities. Such involvement would likely also support better education and health outcomes for Australia’s First Nations people. It may also address and improve interactions with the criminal justice system and work to protect and preserve family units, all areas touched on by the Uluru Statement. Placing power into the hands of First Nations people can and will improve the lives of their people and their communities.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart provides Australia with a clear guide for addressing and implementing international human rights standards, as outlined in UNDRIP. In late July 2022, the proposed wording for a referendum that would allow for a change in a constitution and the enshrining of a First Nations voice to parliament was proposed by the Federal government. What happens next is in the hands of the Australian government and perhaps more significantly, the Australian people. 

Elizabeth Isaac was an intern with the Australian Human Rights Institute in Term 2, 2022.