After finishing the illustrated book of the Declaration of Human Rights, I wondered if I could help to bring attention to a UN document which at the time was hardly known or talked about among Australians. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples had been adopted by the UN General Assembly a year earlier, and Australia was one of only four member States worldwide to oppose it (the other three were the USA, Canada and New Zealand). This Declaration describes human rights applied to the particular situation of indigenous populations around the world. Many indigenous people, including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia, are struggling for land rights, the right to self-determination and the right to be treated as equal citizens.
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was proclaimed after over 20 years of negotiations between UN member states and indigenous peoples. It is seen as a landmark document recognising indigenous rights and freedoms, among them self-determination, ownership and use of lands and natural resources, as well as maintaining and developing indigenous political, religious, cultural and educational institutions. It also establishes the right to protection from genocide and to compensation for rights violations.
I am not of indigenous descent myself, and I tried to tread very carefully while dealing with this subject. I kept my approach international, alluding in my illustrations to indigenous traditions all over the world. At the same time, I did not directly reference any indigenous art, and checked the finished book with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art department at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney before publication, to make sure I did not unwittingly include images that may be perceived as offensive. Ideally, an Aboriginal artist should have illustrated this book, but I felt that I could make a difference by creating this book in the wake of my illustrated Declaration of Human Rights. And it indeed may have made a difference: before publication, I contacted the office of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to ask whether there was any intention of signing up to this Declaration and was told there was none. Two weeks later, just as the book was about to be printed, the Australian government announced that it had reversed its stance. Most likely a coincidence, but I like to think that this little book project affirmed the government in their decision.
It is estimated that there are over 350 million indigenous people in the world. They range from native Americans to tribal people in India and the Ainu in Japan, and from the Inuit in the Arctic to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. They are the inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to other people and the environment.
Indigenous people everywhere have suffered greatly as a result of European colonisation. They endured violence, disease and dispossession, and even today are marginalised and disadvantaged. Their traditional lands often contain sought-after raw materials, or are coveted for agricultural and pastoral use. Even where this is not the case, they are often overlooked and neglected.
Indigenous people’s cultures are unique and diverse – there are over 5000 different and distinctive indigenous nations and peoples in the world – and their responses to colonialism and dispossession have varied from case to case. Some have attempted to cooperate with the colonists, some have tried to overcome the invaders by using non-violent resistance, others have chosen all-out war, either in pitched battles or through guerilla warfare. Often, a mixture of all these tactics has been applied.
Despite the vast differences in their cultures, indigenous people share common problems. Around the world, they are struggling for their rights, among them basic human rights, land rights, the right to self-determination, intellectual property rights, and the right to be treated as equal citizens. Many are fighting against poverty and racism.
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the result of over two decades of negotiations between United Nations member States and indigenous bodies. Its origins can be traced back to 1982, when the UN set up the Working Group on Indigenous Populations with the aim of reviewing the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples. Work on a Draft Declaration began in 1985. The draft was finished in 1993, and was subsequently amended over the following years to meet the concerns of some member States.
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was finally adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007. It is seen as a landmark document recognising indigenous rights and freedoms. Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is not legally binding, but it represents a moral standard backed by the international community, and provides a platform for addressing the continuing human rights abuses against indigenous peoples. The Declaration was adopted with an overwhelming majority of 143 votes in favour. Eleven members abstained, four countries voted against the Declaration.
In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been struggling for their rights since colonisation began in 1788. Strikes and petitions, freedom rides, protests and court battles have advanced indigenous rights, but great numbers of indigenous Australians are still disadvantaged and suffer from discrimination and from the effects of the destruction of their family units, their culture and their resources.