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Saturday, March 13, 1999 Published at 02:35 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Australia defends 'racist' land law

Australia's 386,000 aborigines say they are disadvantaged

Australia has begun its defence at the United Nations against charges of racially discriminating against Aborigines.

The Committee to End Racial Discrimination, in Geneva, wants Australia to explain changes to laws on aboriginal land rights.

Michael Peschardt reports: "Australian race relations are at a dangerously low ebb"
Aboriginal groups, who have been briefing the UN officials, say the latest changes to their land rights are discriminatory and in breach of the relevant UN Convention.

But the Australian government denies the allegations. Its representative told the committee that Australia could not undo all the discriminatory actions of the past.

He said Australia was trying to strike a balance between the interests of the Aborigines and other land-holders.

But he did accept that both groups - especially the Aborigines - were unhappy with the latest changes to their land rights.

A report by the Australian delegation said: "The expropriation of indigenous lands was a tragic event, but it is difficult to reverse past situations."

The Australian government said that under modifications to Australian law, 79% of the country's land now is subject to claims by holders of indigenous land rights.

Our correspondent in Geneva, Claire Doole, says it is unprecedented for Australia to face such scrutiny in an international forum.

Farmers vs aborigines

The United Nations asked Australia last August to explain changes to its land-rights laws, a month after it removed aboriginal rights to claim "native title" on vast areas of farmland.

[ image: Life expectancy for aborigines is 20 years less than rest of population]
Life expectancy for aborigines is 20 years less than rest of population
They were removed because of farmers' concerns that land which they had leased for generations could be taken away.

Government officials say the legislation was a hard-won compromise between farmers and the Aborigines.

But aborigines say Australia is flouting international standards on racial discrimination by making it more difficult for aborigines to press compensatory claims for lost land.

"If this United Nations has got any real meaning, they should be able to intervene and prevent any further action," said Geoff Clark, from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

However, the Australian parliament still has the final say on any reforms to the current law.

Race relations at low ebb

Australia's race relations are at a dangerous low ebb after the emergence of Pauline Hanson's racist One Nation Party.

Relations between Aborigines and the government have also been strained over the government's refusal to issue an apology for past injustices to indigenous people.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination also asked Australia to explain its abolition of the post of social justice commissioner for Aborigines.

The position was recently reinstated.

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