Page last updated at 04:08 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 05:08 UK

Australia backs indigenous rights

Garigal Aborigines perform a welcome ceremony Oct 08
Aborigines have a rich culture but have long been marginalised

Australia has formally adopted the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The move reverses the policy of the previous government which voted against the declaration when it was adopted at the UN General assembly in 2007.

The Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, said it meant a new start in relations between all Australians.

The declaration stresses the right of indigenous people to their own cultures, institutions and traditions.

It also establishes standards to combat discrimination and marginalisation and eliminate human rights violations against them.

However, it is not legally binding.

Australia's original inhabitants, the Aborigines, are believed to have numbered around a million at the time of white settlement but there are now just 470,000 out of a population of 21 million.

They are Australia's most impoverished minority, with a lifespan 17 years shorter than the national average and disproportionately high rates of imprisonment, heart disease and infant mortality.

New era?

The government described its signing as an important symbolic step in healing past wounds.

Australia was one of four countries that voted against the declaration in 2007. The others were the US, New Zealand and Canada. Eleven countries abstained and 143 voted in favour.

The former conservative government of John Howard argued that the declaration could override existing laws and give unfair advantage to Aborigines.

"Today, Australia changes its position," the indigenous affairs minister told a ceremony at Parliament House.

"We do this in the spirit of resetting the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and building trust," Jenny Macklin said.

"Today we celebrate the great privilege all Australians have to live alongside the custodians of the oldest continuing cultures in human history."

It is the latest in a series of symbolic moves from the government of Kevin Rudd, which last year issued a long-awaited apology to indigenous Australian for past injustices.

But Mr Rudd been criticised by indigenous leaders for emphasising symbolism over substance. They have accused his government of not doing more in the fields of health and education, and in particularly closing the gap in the life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

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