Australia accused of genocide against aborigines

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A political furore has broken out in Australia over a report that accuses the country of practising genocide and crimes against humanity with past government policies that removed thousands of Aboriginal children from their families.

The report was written by Sir Ronald Wilson, one of Australia's most respected former judges, who has called on the government to apologise publicly for one of the grimmest chapters in Australian history. Between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their parentsand put in white foster homes. Many never saw their parents again.

Sir Ronald wrote his report after conducting an inquiry as president of Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the so- called "Stolen Generation" inquiry. Hundreds of Aboriginal adults, many in tears, told him their heart-rending stories of being taken by police and officials from their outback communities; of their mothers wailing and of their years of emotional - and sometimes physical and sexual - abuse at the hands of white officials and foster parents who were supposed to deliver them a better future.

The policies were conducted on the basis of a belief in white superiority and that the aboriginal race would eventually die out. In reality, less than 30 years after the policies were discontinued, aboriginal identity, cultural revival and political activism have never been stronger.

In his report, Sir Ronald accused Australia of breaching international law. "The United Nations Charter of 1945, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965 all imposed obligations on Australia relating to the elimination of racial discrimination," it says.

"The Australian practice of indigenous child removal involved both systematic racial discrimination and genocide as defined by international law. Yet it continued to be practised as official policy long after being clearly prohibited by treaties to which Australia had voluntarily subscribed."

The report said Australian policy involved genocide because it aimed to assimilate black children into the non-indigenous community so that their unique cultural values and identities would disappear and be replaced by Western cultural models.

Even before Sir Ronald's report has been publicly released, however, a political storm has erupted around it. The federal coalition government, headed by John Howard, has been accused of trying to discredit Sir Ronald and the report. Earlier this week, an unnamed government "source" was quoted as saying the report lacked cre- dibility and that Sir Ronald was biased. This referred to a recent television appearance by Sir Ronald in which he himself apologised to aborigines. He acknowledged his unwitting involvement in the removal of children as a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, which ran institutions where"stolen generation" were sent.

After press attacks on the government's handling of the 700-page report, the government has undertaken to table it in parliament next week. It is likely to cause a sensation when its contents are revealed. The report was commissioned by the former Labor government of Paul Keating.

Mr Howard, leader of the conservative Liberal Party, is less sympathetic than his predecessor to aboriginal causes. He has said that he wants Australians to feel "comfortable and relaxed" about their past, and declared after his election last year: "I sympathise fundamentally with Australians who are insulted when they are told we have a racist, bigoted past." The "stolen generation" report is likely to make clear that those were hollow words.

Already, Mr Howard has come under pressure from the church, human rights groups and international figures to fulfil the report's calls for a public apology and compensation to victims. Alex Boraine, deputy chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said in Sydney: "I don't want to tell the Australian government or society what to do. All I'm saying is that in South Africa, where deep hurt has been inflicted, it has a healing property to say `sorry' and to deal with it." He urged Mr Howard to follow the example of President Clinton, who publicly apologised to blacks used in official United States experiments on untreated syphilis.

Lois O'Donoghue, one of Australia's leading Aboriginal spokeswomen, who was herself taken from her family when she was two, said: "The government should do something to assist those people who've not been able to find their families, who are completely lost and can't move forward."