: Reflection on 20 years since Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody

Reflection on 20 years since Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody

Ben Schokman
Human Rights

15 April 2011 saw the 20th anniversary of the release of the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The Commission’s report highlighted the systemic disadvantage faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which resulted in their higher rates of incarceration and the high rate of subsequent deaths in custody.

Many of the Royal Commission’s recommendations related to the criminal justice system, and required ongoing liaison between different government agencies. The principal thrust of the 333 recommendations was directed towards the elimination of disadvantage, empowerment and self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Twenty years on however, many of the Royal Commission’s recommendations have never been implemented and the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in custody continue to be of concern.

While the deaths of Mr Doomadgee in November 2004 on Palm Island and Mr Ward in January 2008 in country Western Australia have brought much attention to these ongoing concerns, it is clear that much more needs to be done by all Australian governments. Since the Royal Commission’s report, 269 deaths have occurred in custody — an average of about one a month — and the percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the criminal justice system has almost doubled.

Australia’s continuing failure to take adequate steps to address this issue has been the subject of a number of recommendations by UN human rights bodies, including the Committee against Torture in its 2008 Concluding Observations, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in its 2010 Concluding Observations, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of Indigenous people following his country visit in 2010, and, most recently, during Australia’s Universal Periodic Review appearance in January 2011.

BEN SCHOKMAN is Director of International Human Rights Advocacy with the Human Rights Law Centre.

(2011) 36(2) AltLJ 127
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