Health and self-determination on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Amanda Lyons

9/08/2018 2:45:35 PM

Karl Briscoe, CEO of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers Association, talks to newsGP about his trip to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples earlier this year.

Karl Briscoe, CEO of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers Association, at the UN Headquarters in New York.
Karl Briscoe, CEO of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers Association, at the UN Headquarters in New York.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is commemorated on August 9 around the world as a recognition of the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva in 1982.
To mark this occasion, newsGP spoke with Karl Briscoe, Chief Executive Officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers Association (NATSIWHA), about his visit earlier this year to attend the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples (the Forum) in New York. There, he was able to share the experiences of Indigenous peoples from around the world and reflect on how they may relate to Australia.
‘The Permanent Forum is a high level advisory body that provides expert advice and recommendations to the United Nations Economic and Social Council,’ Mr Briscoe explained. ‘It also raises awareness and promotes the integration and coordination of activities related to Indigenous issues within the UN system.
‘It holds annual two-week sessions, and there are six mandated areas within that: economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.’
The Forum uses the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration), which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, as its basis for its recommendations and decisions.
‘The Declaration is aimed towards eliminating rights violations against Indigenous people and assisting them in combatting discrimination and marginalisation within their countries,’ Mr Briscoe said.
‘It also sets a platform for countries to ratify it into their laws so that it actually can become legally binding.’
Mr Briscoe had the opportunity at the Forum to meet Indigenous representatives from all around the world, where he found many of the underlying issues they were facing were the same – although he was often sobered by the challenges presented to Indigenous peoples in other countries.
‘We heard of the Mapuche killings [in Chile] by government forces; of people being locked up in prison for 30 years even after they have had something similar to a commission of inquiry that has found them not guilty. We don’t have that level within Australia,’ Mr Briscoe said.
‘However, when we look at the abuses that have been highlighted around the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, that rang true to a lot of the issues that we’re seeing globally around our rights as Indigenous peoples not being respected.’
The visit also helped Mr Briscoe appreciate some of Australia’s unique achievements in the area of Indigenous health.
‘The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers and health practitioners in Australia are the only ethnic-based health professions in the world that have legislation and regulation, as well as a national training curriculum, to support them,’ he said.
‘We know this is important, as international research has shown that the involvement of Indigenous people in their own health achieves better outcomes.’
However, there is one area in which Mr Briscoe believes involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their own affairs requires far more work.
‘I’m waiting in anticipation for self-determination to come to fruition in Australia, as stated in Article 3 of the Declaration: “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development,’ he said.
Mr Briscoe believes that greater self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a key factor in improving health outcomes for Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
‘If we are to be serious about self-determination, [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples] actually need to be able to make the decisions and be involved in a lot of the decision-making – rather than the top-down approach, we need to get back to the bottom-up,’ he said.
‘A classic example is that since 2008, the 10-year life expectancy gap has remained and has actually even widened in 2018.
‘I think we’re starting to see a bit of a shift in the Closing the Gap refresh; we’re just hoping that the voices of our people are heard within that process.’
Another aspect Mr Briscoe encountered at the Forum that he found extremely relevant to the issue of self-determination and its impacts on Indigenous peoples’ health was the issue of Treaty.
‘I see developed countries such as Canada and New Zealand having recognition of their Indigenous people through Treaties which allows them to be involved in self-determining their future,’ he said.
‘Just imagine if Australia recognised their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution, and had a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making and truth-telling between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
‘The impact on our health and wellbeing would be much more positive as we would be involved, not only in acknowledging and respecting our past, but also forging a future where we could self-determine what is required in order to address the social and cultural determinants for our people.
‘How different could the health of our people be, if we had something like that?’

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