Friday, 10 February 2012

Four Years after the Australian Apology: The Value of Words?

In 2008, an historic apology (here) was issued by then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia.

The Australian newspaper article notes an event that was held to commemorate the four year anniversary of the apology. But as reflected in that article, “sorry” is a place to start—it is a beginning point, not a resolution.

The current Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard will provide an update on the progress made since the apology next week, according to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The apology addressed particularly the events of the forced separation of children from their families, something that has happened in recent history, not in the distant past, as noted in the apology:

“But let us remember the fact that the forced removal of Aboriginal children was happening as late as the early 1970s. The 1970s is not exactly a point in remote antiquity. There are still serving members of this parliament who were first elected to this place in the early 1970s. It is well within the adult memory span of many of us. The uncomfortable truth for us all is that the parliaments of the nation, individually and collectively, enacted statutes and delegated authority under those statutes that made the forced removal of children on racial grounds fully lawful.”

Today, this kind of forced removal is prohibited by Article 7(2) of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What seems unthinkable today was seen as good government policy only a generation or so ago.

The Australian government was not alone in its pursuit of policies of forced assimilation and forced removal of indigenous children in the belief that this was in the best interest for the children. The United States government also pursued this prior to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. ( See prior posts on the subject of the Indian Child Welfare Act here and here) And controversy rages in parts of the United States over whether the Indian Child Welfare Act is being adhered to, following a report by NPR.

All of which raises the question—what are the values of words? What is the value of an apology? What is the value of the words of laws on books if not accessible or implemented and enforced? Words alone do not begin to address the situations to which they are directed. Action is required to make them meaningful. Australia, which originally opposed the approval of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has reversed that stance. But what will be more meaningful is to heae the report of the Australian Prime Minister, and to hear what progress has been made four years after the Australian apology.

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