On 31 January 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Council released a draft report on the Universal Periodic Review. The draft report made firm recommendations that Australia:
(1) Amend the Native Title Act 1993 to remove “strict requirements which can prevent the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from exercising the right to access and control their traditional lands and take part in cultural life”;
(2) Implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into domestic law. This Declaration includes rights of indigenous people to land (especially in Article 26);
(3) Ratify ILO Convention 169. This convention also contains rights to land for indigenous people.
The Review is a process whereby nations are regularly examined by members of the Human Rights Council for adherence to internationally recognised human rights standards and other nations can make recommendations as to how to improve adherence to human rights standards. The recommendations are not binding on Australia, however they are indicative of world opinion about the obligations Australia owes to its Indigenous people in relation to their rights, including to land.
Australia has taken the Universal Review seriously, committing to consult extensively with the Australian Human Rights Commission and non-government organizations while reflecting on the Universal Periodic Review process and considering how recommendations can best be addressed. Australia has also committed to establishing an online database of recommendations from the UN system that will be publicly accessible. The recommendations made during the Review and accepted by Australia will inform the development of Australia’s National Human Rights Action Plan. At the next Review Australia will also detail what steps it has taken to implement the recommendations made in this year’s review.
While the Universal Period Review is essentially a political process for the upholding of human rights, this year’s review of Australia appears to reveal a degree of international concern as to the extent Australian laws on rights to land for Indigenous people conforms to international standards. This political pressure is not determinative, but is likely to be supportive in the struggle of many Indigenous peoples in Australia to win back control of their land.