Australia backs U.N. indigenous rights declaration

Friday, April 3, 2009

SYDNEY -- Australia adopted the U.N.'s declaration of indigenous rights Friday, reversing its earlier opposition in what officials said was an effort to "reset" relations between white Australians and Aborigines.

The support for the nonbinding declaration is a largely symbolic step, but extends a dramatic shift in policy on Aborigines since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was elected 17 months ago.

"In supporting the declaration Australia takes another important step toward resetting relations between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians," Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said at a ceremony in the national capital, Canberra, that was broadcast nationally.

Australia was one of four nations that voted against the U.N. declaration when it was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007. The United States, New Zealand and Canada were the other opponents, while 143 countries voted in favor and 11 abstained.

The former conservative government argued that the declaration could override existing laws and give unfair advantage to Aborigines, who are an impoverished and unhealthy minority after 220 years of white settlement in Australia. The U.S. has voiced similar objections, and both countries said they had been shut out of the final negotiations on the text.

Aboriginal rights are often a contentious issue, and arguments over traditional land ownership and special benefits have split the community in the past.

Rudd's center-left government has adopted a less combative approach to indigenous affairs than his predecessor, John Howard. One of Rudd's first acts as prime minister was to offer a formal apology to Aborigines for past government injustices -- a powerful gesture that Howard had resisted for years.

The declaration affirms the equality of the world's more than 370 million indigenous peoples and their right to maintain their own institutions, cultures and spiritual traditions. It also establishes standards to combat discrimination and marginalization and eliminate human rights violations against them.

Aborigines, the world's oldest continuous indigenous culture, are a minority of some 400,000 in a population of 21 million. They often live in squalid and overcrowded conditions in the Outback or on urban fringes where alcohol and drug abuse is rife. Aborigines die -- often from preventable diseases -- on average 17 years younger than their fellow Australians.

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