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Swiss rights group calls for action on behalf of Aborigines

With all eyes turning to Sydney for the Olympic Games, the Berne-based Society for Threatened Peoples has called on the Australian government to give the country's native people, the Aborigines, a constitutional right to self-determination.

This content was published on September 12, 2000 - 18:33

The Society also urged the Swiss government not to conclude new economic agreements with Australia as long as it fails to adhere to international human rights standards.

In a five-page document released on Monday, the Society appealed to the United Nations to make discrimination against Australia's 400,000 indigenous people the main theme in its discussions on human rights in 2001, which has been designated a year against racism.

The statement called on the International Olympic Committee to review the human rights situation in the host country before awarding the Games, and to offer affected groups and non-governmental organisations a forum to express their concerns.

Neva Collings of the non-governmental Foundation of Aboriginal and Islander Research Action, FAIRA, told a news conference in Berne that the Australian government is using the Olympics to portray the Aborigines as enjoying a happy, healthy cultural life.

She said the situation was quite the opposite. During the Olympics, which open on Friday and continue through to October 1, Aboriginal groups are planning a series of high-profile demonstrations to draw the attention of the international community to their condition.

They are intended to be peaceful protests, but the head of Australia's largest indigenous body has warned that they could turn violent.

Collings agreed that violence could be counter productive to their cause, but said she felt there was "a general understanding of the intensity of feeling within the indigenous populations in light of recent policy decisions".

Collings, who is the international projects officer with FAIRA, said the demonstrations are intended to put pressure on the government to re-open discussions on the amended Native Title Act.

She said the Act denied the economic, social and cultural rights of indigenous peoples, and that Aborigines wanted it to include the right to negotiate.

She cited a list of other grievances related to education, housing, criminal justice and mandatory sentencing, which she said amounted to outright discrimination against Aborigines.

"Aboriginal groups want to be able to exercise their right to self-determination. But the Australian government has formally withdrawn from that, preferring self-management."

Collings said self-determination meant having a say in political decisions, and was not a step towards secession.

FAIRA's presence in Berne is part of efforts to muster more international support for its campaign. Collings said she was disappointed with a recent statement by the former South African president, Nelson Mandela, urging the Australian government to take account of Aboriginal concerns.

"Given that Mandela is the patron of the World Conference on Racism next year in South Africa, I would have expected a far stronger statement," she said.

by Paul Sufrin

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