IALL 2019 Recap: Australian Indigenous Peoples and the Law

By Meredith Capps

AustralianIndigenous

The panel at the Australian Indigenous Peoples and the Law program at IALL 2019.

On Monday, October 28th at 11:00 a.m., Thalia Anthony of the University of Technology, Sydney began the panel with her presentation titled Colonial Legal Histories and Indigenous Sovereignty.  Anthony described the concept of legal hybridity, and the historic tension between colonial jurisdiction and indigenous sovereignty.  She discussed the notion of ngurra-kurla embraced by the Warlpiri people, a philosophy embodying core elements of law land, law, language, skin, and ceremony, and how the Warlpiri utilize both compensation and shaming as punishment.  Recent policing of Warlpiri sacred sites in violation of its indigenous law provides an example of typical modern-day intracultural and intralegal conflicts.

Anthony discussed several significant Australian cases dealing with indigenous sovereignty, including:

  • R v Murrell (1836)–the Supreme Court of New South Wales (NSW) ruled that indigenous people are not “law-bearing people,” indigenous inhabitants subject to universal Anglo-Australian law;
  • Milirrpum v Nabalco & Cth (1971)–Supreme Court of the Northern Territories rejected a claim of native title;
  • Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992)–landmark decision of the High Court of Australia overturning Milirrpum, for the first time recognizing native title;
  • Walker v NSW (1994)–the High Court of Australia found that the legislature may pass general criminal statutes applicable to all persons;
  • Binge v Bennett (1988) & R v Buzzacott (2004)–NSW Supreme Court and Australian Capital Territory Supreme Courts dismissed concerns of racial bias in jury selection.

Anthony then discussed Australia’s incarceration of indigenous people, the most incarcerated group in the world.  Indigenous women currently represent Australia’s fastest-growing prison demographic.  Anthony characterized efforts to forcibly displace indigenous persons during the 18th century as “palliative carceralism” while in the 19th century, Australian authorities engaged in “protective carceralism,” asserting control over indigenous populations through missions and settlement.  Such efforts evolved into what Anthony characterizes as “welfare carceralism” and “penal carceralism.”  Indigenous communities are subject to a high level of policing on the streets, and greater levels of criminalization at each stage of the justice system (arrest, prosecution, and bail).  Indigenous young people are more likely to experience abuses such as torture while in police detention.  Despite efforts by the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, indigenous persons die at increasing rates while in police custody.  Anthony reemphasized that indigenous communities do not utilize prison as punishment, and highlighted the need for a hybrid domain embracing initiatives such as community courts and community justice reports.

In Protecting Indigenous Cultural Property, attorney Terri Janke described intellectual property protections for indigenous land, documentation, arts, and language.  She discussed international protocols such as the Negoya Protocol, WIPO provisions regarding traditional cultural expressions, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which assert rights, but these rights do not automatically translate into domestic statutory law in Australia. Janke highlighted challenges common to protecting cultural history in different spheres.  Copyright, for example, does not protect content such as oral history, which does not exist in a fixed format.  In the patent realm, co-sharing agreements can provide a mechanism for protecting indigenous knowledge in medicinal use of plants.  Janke discussed a few notable cases dealing with indigenous cultural property, including Milpurrurru v Indofurn, in which indigenous artists prevailed in a copyright suit involving use of their art in woven carpets, Bulu v R&T Textiles, rejecting the idea of communal ownership of copyright but finding that the artist owed a duty to the indigenous group whose work he represented, and ACCC v Birubi Art Pty Ltd, penalizing Birubi for sale of fake indigenous art in souvenirs.

Finally, Magistrate Sue Duncombe presented NSW Circle Sentencing and the NSW Youth Koori Court.  59% of the juvenile detention population is indigenous, and the Youth Koori Court, awarded a $2.7 million, three-year government grant, hopes to address this imbalance.  Its goal is not necessarily to reduce recidivism, but to reduce risk factors for offending, and though some participants have reoffended, many participants now live independently, obtain employment, and maintain custody of children. Juvenile offenders accepted in the program will engage in a suitability exercise where they learn program expectations, including developing of their own action and support plans, and compliance with monitoring and reporting procedures.  At sentencing, punishments may not exceed those the youth would receive in the criminal justice system, and staff acknowledge and incentivize progress.

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