Juukan Gorge in Western Australia is one of the earliest known sites occupied by Aboriginals in Australia, and its destruction by Rio Tinto sparked widespread revulsion
Juukan Gorge in Western Australia is one of the earliest known sites occupied by Aboriginals in Australia, and its destruction had sparked widespread criticism. PKKP Aboriginal Corporation / Handout

A United Nations committee has sought response from the Australian government on violating the international racial discrimination conventions in the case of laws that manage Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia (WA).

In 2023, the WA government reversed the state's Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 to its original 1972 status just five weeks after the new legislation was implemented. The government's move came after the agricultural and pastoral sectors called the new act confusing and inoperable, and added that it could lead to inadvertent violations, ABC News reported.

However, restoring the act to its 1972 status drew criticism from the indigenous communities for not consulting them. Prominent members from the indigenous community wrote to the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) pointing to the lack of consultation with the Aboriginal people on the process and the weak laws under the 1972 Act.

CERD is now seeking a response from the Australian government on the level of consultation it had with indigenous people while forming the new laws and when reverting to the 1972 act. The CERD letter highlights how the laws are contrary to Australia's commitments to the international treaty that prohibits race discrimination.

"According to the information before the Committee, the WA government took the decision to reinstate, with some amendments ... without consultation with, or consent by, Aboriginal Peoples," the letter states.

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021, which took effect from July 2023, created a tiered system of heritage requirements for landholders. But the farmers found the laws too confusing and the planning authorities were bombarded with calls and emails seeking clarification on the laws. In November 2023, the WA government restored the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 Act stating "simple and effective amendments drawn from feedback over years of consultation."

Human rights lawyer Hannah McGlade, a prominent member of the indigenous community, said policies and legislations that have been set up over successive years offered no protection to the culture of the Aboriginal people. She added that lack of consultation with the indigenous people while forming legislations contravenes human rights standards.

"The WA government reverted to the original 1972 legislation in the face of opposition by pastoralists and industry without any engagement with Indigenous Aboriginal peoples," McGlade said. "This is completely contrary to international human rights standards."

CERD also calls out the weak legislations under section 18 of the Act.

The panel has asked the federal government to give its response and the actions it will take to address the issues, and to consult the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to ensure compliance with international human rights standards.