Washington International Law Journal


Anna Cowan


The adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”) by the General Assembly in 2007 was a landmark achievement in the development of indigenous rights under international law, particularly through its unequivocal recognition of indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. That same year, Australia launched a comprehensive Intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, which purported to safeguard important human rights but was heavily criticized for its discriminatory and non-consultative approach. This article explores the meaning of self-determination under international law, now that the long debate over whether indigenous peoples are “peoples” has finally been resolved. It then uses the result of that analysis as the basis for a critique of Australia’s methodology in the Intervention. The article argues that self-determination entails the right of a people to control their own affairs through freedom from discrimination and meaningful participation in decision-making, and that the scope of self-determination must be the same for indigenous peoples as for ‘all peoples’ under international law. When assessed against these criteria, it is clear that Australia’s Intervention methodology fell well short of the requirements of empowerment inherent in these established and evolving international human rights standards. As Australia moves beyond the Intervention towards Stronger Futures it is imperative that the mistakes of an approach based on discrimination and a failure to foster genuine participation by Aboriginal peoples are not continued. The lessons of the Intervention are relevant for other states beyond Australia as the international community moves to implement the standards in UNDRIP.

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