Australia is failing to deliver on the UN Rights of Indigenous people

It is now well recognised that Indigenous peoples worldwide have a binding relationship to Earth and Nature which is integral to their health and wellbeing.

In 2007 the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, (UNDRIP), was announced. It was expected to lead to improved understanding and delivery of the spiritual and cultural needs of Aboriginal peoples in relation to their attachment and ownership of lands. In turn this would benefit the health and wellbeing of indigenous communities.


  • David Shearman
    is AM PhD FRACP is emeritus professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide and Co-Founder, Doctors for the Environment Australia.

  • Craig Wilkins
    is Chief Executive of the Conservation Council of SA, the peak body for the nature and sustainability sector in South Australia

In 2007 a majority of 144 nations voted for the Declaration. There were 4 votes against, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, all with a history of colonisation. Australia was reticent to sign, but eventually did in 2009. We are committed to implement the Declaration and promote indigenous people’s enjoyment of rights on an equal basis.

However an Australian Human Rights report in 2021 shows the Australian Government  has not taken steps to implement the UNDRIP into law, policy and practice; has not negotiated with indigenous peoples a National Action Plan to implement the UNDRIP; and has not audited existing laws, policies and practice for compliance with the UNDRIP.

These need to be addressed urgently in the context of Aboriginal health and well being, which has been a laggard in the Closing the Gap assessments, and in the spirit of moving forward in the context of the new Prime Minister’s commitment to constitutional change.

We know that indigenous heath suffers from inadequate housing which lacks insulation and secure electricity, and from poor access to health services and inadequate water resources. It is also highly dependent on cultural and spiritual ties to land.

In submission 89 to a Senate Inquiry on the Application of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Australia we have examined four legislative or development proposals in South Australia and a large regional review on gas field development in the Northern Territory. There is no evidence that the principles of UNDRIP have had any impact on any of them.

Underground Coal Gasification on the lands of the Adnyamathanha People (AP) of South Australia

In 2018, twelve years after the UNDRIP declaration, an underground coal gasification  project was proposed on AP lands at Leigh Creek, a process  banned in Queensland after causing soil contamination over a large region.

The previous Marshall Liberal state government overruled opposition to development by the AP, and approved the project under the Aboriginal Heritage Act despite significant cultural and health implications.


Barngarla opposition to the proposed National Radioactive Waste Facility

After a controversial process, the former Morrison Government formally declared the Napandee area near Kimba in the Eyre Peninsula grain belt of SA as the proposed site for Australia’s first dedicated national radioactive waste facility. This declaration was against the loud and consistent opposition of the Barngarla Traditional Owners, who had only recently been granted native title rights to their country.

A community ballot conducted by the Kimba District Council at the request of the Federal Government deliberately excluded the Barngarla Traditional Owners. When the Barngarla conducted their own independent poll, not a single Traditional Owner voted in favour of the proposal.

The Barngarla have now been forced to take the matter to the Federal Court for Judicial Review.

The SA Water Security Statement 2021 Water for Sustainable Growth

This Statement totally failed to address Aboriginal Rights and Water Security. Some Aboriginal people do not have access to water safe to drink or bathe in and who are consequently unable to fully exercise their Right to Life. This confers significant adverse health outcomes.

In response to many submissions, including this from Professor David Shearman the final report made some important additions including a new section – Aboriginal Water Interests.

Clearly the state government had been unaware of UNDRIP.


Great Artesian Basin Water

Unfortunately neither the Commonwealth in the Great Artesian Basin Strategic Management Plan, nor the state of South Australia in the Water Security Statement, recognised the human health and sustainability role of the Basin at a time when Australia, and particularly South Australia, becomes drier. The Basin may have to become a reserve for emergency drinking water.

The Arabana Aboriginal Corporation has said “Unfortunately, our springs are disappearing…. The cause of the disappearance of our springs is water that is being taken from the Great Artesian Basin by BHP’s mine at Roxby Downs…. Unless something is done by the Commonwealth, our springs will
disappear… It is unsustainable, destructive of nature, and destructive of our culture to allow the springs to die”.

BHP’s prolific water usage is an ongoing threat to the integrity of the springs. There is an extraction of approx. 34-35 million litres of Basin waters a day, regulated under the outdated 1982 Indenture – set to apply to 2036.

Consideration of the interlocking needs of the Aboriginal peoples and the fragile ecology of the region is dismissed when economic gain is challenged by human and environmental sustainability. It is doubtful if commitments under UNDRIP have been read by those making these decisions.

NT Strategic Regional Environmental and Baseline Assessment (SREBA) framework 2020

This was intended to protect the health and wellbeing of residents of the Northern Territory impacted by shale gas mining developments.

In 2021 Traditional Owners delivered an open letter to Parliament with over 35,000 signatures of support. This reaffirmed their relationship to Country.

“For years, we have been told lies by the gas and oil corporations. That there would be no damage to the Country or poison in our waters. These companies won’t even answer the most basic of questions — where they plan to drill or how many wells they want to build.”

The Traditional Owners noted the lack of respect shown to them by gas corporations, saying they have failed to “follow proper process in consultation with us, failed to acquire consent, failed to provide transparency in their dealings with us, and have systemically excluded our voices from the decision-making process for activities on our Country

The assessment of the SREBA Framework by Professors David Shearman and Melissa Haswell revealed a huge gulf between the rights and ideals of UNDRIP and actions of a state government and the resource companies.

The NT failed to respond adequately to detailed criticism pertaining to health assessments, water availability, transparency, consultation and social licence. Indeed the loss of social licence by gas companies is evident from the recent ACCC report indicating they were operating outside the rules.

In conclusion we detail five examples of dismissal of Aboriginal claims over harms they will suffer from the actions of state governments and resource companies. This is a common occurrence throughout Australia and the federal government must implement UNDRIP as a vital step to improve the basis of Aboriginal health and wellbeing and to deliver the UNDRIP agreement in many other ways.

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