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The Northern Territory Intervention and Human Rights


The Northern Territory Intervention and Human Rights: Time to Reflect

Perspectives vol 3



The Northern Territory Intervention is the subject of as much debate today as it was in 2007 when the ‘emergency reform package’ was introduced by the Howard government.

In 2010, as the Intervention continues, it’s time to take stock and search for a just response to the complex problem. 

Social anthropologist Dr Mary Edmunds has drawn together the history, circumstance, culture, principles and practice surrounding the Northern Territory Intervention in this insightful essay.

Dr Edmunds’ paper is a passionate exposition that opens the space for engaging with ideas of poverty, abuse, governance and human rights in Aboriginal Australia. It is a considered and robust examination of the tension between our human rights obligations, the imperative to act, and the way these intentions are experienced on the ground.

“There is no doubt that the Intervention had a significant impact on the Northern Territory Aboriginal people,” says Dr Edmunds. “What is less clear is whether the Intervention placed Australia in breach of its international human rights obligations and, if it did, whether the methods of the Intervention could ever truly be considered to be justified?”

Dr Edmunds’ essay examines the measures of the intervention that received widespread community support, including the measures designed to reduce alcohol-related violence, increase the quality and availability of housing, improve the health and wellbeing of communities, and advance early learning and education in Indigenous communities.

More controversially, the essay also details those ‘special measures’, such as the Federal Government’s legislative suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, that have since been considered racially discriminatory.

“The Northern Territory Intervention is a stark reminder that, even in modern Australia, Human Rights are not an indelible gift that should be taken for granted,” says Dr Edmunds.

“Human rights are a hard-won historical and international achievement. As recent decades have demonstrated, they also remain vulnerable, including in Australia.”

Eric Sidoti, Director of the Whitlam Institute, says Dr Edmunds’ essay is a thoughtful, considered piece of work that peels back the layers of this complex issue.

“There is no greater challenge than addressing such a dire need effectively, while at the same time preserving the dignity of all those involved in a manner consistent with our principles and values,” says Mr Sidoti.

“That is exactly the challenge that the public release of the Little Children are Sacred report threw in our faces. Mary Edmunds tackles the task head on.”

Her essay, The Northern Territory Intervention and Human Rights: An Anthropological Perspective, which was first prepared as a submission to the Human Rights Council.

Read the paper: