Aboriginal group files UN complaint over Western Australia heritage bill

A group of Aboriginal people has filed a complaint to the United Nations over Western Australia’s draft heritage protection laws, more than a year after miner Rio Tinto legally destroyed historically and culturally significant rock shelters.

The group is making a formal request for the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to review the state’s cultural heritage bill, calling it incompatible with Australia’s international obligations.

“If the traditional owners, the first Australians, say, ‘No, don’t destroy this particular site,’ that must stand,” said Slim Parker, a senior elder of the Martidja Banjima people who is one of those making the complaint.

“The days when the minister has the discretion and the final say, saying, ‘Well, we’ve heard what you’ve got to say but we’re going to do it anyway,’ should be over,” he said.

In the past, the government has said it consulted extensively with Aboriginal groups and drafted the bill to put them at the centre of decision-making.

BHP Group mines iron ore on the traditional lands of the Banjima people in the Pilbara region, rich in iron ore, where rival Rio Tinto destroyed historic rock shelters for an iron ore mine last year.

The government of Western Australia is re-drafting heritage laws that have allowed damage to significant Aboriginal sites in a government-led process that gives developers a right to appeal, while denying it to affected Aboriginal groups.

New draft laws put greater emphasis on agreement between Indigenous groups and developers, but the government retains the final decision in heritage disputes.

“Traditional Owners are unable to say ‘no’ to activities which will destroy significant cultural heritage,” the group said in a statement.

There was insufficient protection of the right to culture, which prohibits states from destroying significant Aboriginal cultural heritage, it added.

Without such protection, a risk remains of “a continuation of systemic and racial discrimination which has characterised the operation of the current legislation,” it said.

Among the five high-profile Aboriginal Australians making the complaint is human rights specialist Hannah McGlade, a professor at the Curtin Law School who is from the Kurin Minang people.

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