Commission to Investigate Abuses Against Australia’s First Nations

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A woman holds an Indigenous Lives Matter placard during a Black Lives Matter rally on June 6, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
© 2020 Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via AP Images.

This week the Australian state of Victoria announced the creation of a truth and justice commission to investigate two centuries of violence, abuse, and discrimination against Australia’s First Nations people.

It is the first formal “truth-telling” process in Australia’s history and marks important recognition of the direct and ongoing effects of colonization on Indigenous peoples.

The Truth and Justice Commission is being created in partnership between the Victoria state government and The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, which described the announcement as “230 years in the making, one that our Elders, leaders and ancestors have laid the groundwork for.”

The commission will be modelled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Nelson Mandela in post-apartheid South Africa, as well as similar processes held in New Zealand and Canada.

Australia’s “Stolen Generation,” the state-sanctioned removal of Indigenous children from their families, the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in Australia’s prisons, and the high proportion of Indigenous children in foster care, are likely to be among the historical and ongoing injustices examined.

The inquiry will have the powers of a royal commission, holding public hearings, calling witnesses under oath, and compelling evidence. It will also recommend reforms to improve Indigenous peoples’ quality of life and could endorse a model for the government to provide reparations to Indigenous people.

The establishment of a truth-telling process about Australia’s history and colonization was a key recommendation of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart,” a landmark call by a historic summit of Indigenous leaders in 2017. The federal government rejected the Uluru Statement’s central proposal to form a body in the national parliament representing First Nations people.

In the absence of federal leadership, Australian states and territories should follow Victoria’s historic lead and set up their own truth and justice commissions.

Powerful truth-telling that recognizes human rights abuses perpetrated against Australia’s First Nations people over the past 233 years is a critical step on the pathway to reconciliation and justice.