An Outline and discussion on the historical, cultural and political context of Australian Actions Towards Idigenous Peoples and A Critical Evaluation of the Possibility of Describing it as a Genocide

Genocide In Australia?

An Outline and discussion on the historical, cultural and political context of Australian Actions Towards Idigenous Peoples and A Critical Evaluation of the Possibility of Describing it as a Genocide


            This essay will look at Australia and try to answer the question as to whether the crimes committed by white settlers against the aboriginal people constitute the definition of genocide. It will also argue that there are in fact two distinct practices in Australian history that may be defined as genocidal; murder of aboriginal people and the forceful removal of aboriginal children from their communities. This essay will begin by outlining a brief history of supposed genocide in Australia. This outline will raise a preliminary case for the inclusion of Australia as a genocidal nation, supported then by a theoretical debate as to the definition of genocide as defined by international law and its viability and legitimacy as a description of human destruction. This essay will then re-visit Australia’s history (already outlined) and its present government’s policies to draw a conclusion.

            Australia, the land mass situated in the southern hemisphere and surrounded by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, has been occupied by Human Beings for an estimated 40’000 years (2003: 168). The dark skinned people today described as aborigines are thought to have populated the country for all of this time, existing as hunter-gatherers; living off the land that shaped their societal organisation, their culture and their beliefs. These ‘first Australians’ were and are a people ‘whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations’ (http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/62.htm) and are still the victims of oppression and systematic, institutionalised racism.

            In the eighteenth century British colonialists and imperialists began to populate the Island with white settlers looking for land. These people were later joined by white prisoners sent to serve time on Britain’s largest penal colony. These white settlers were little more than slaves who remained so 40 years after slavery was said to have been abolished in Britain (2001: 7). Although the white prisoner’s fate was horrific the fate of the first Australians was far worse. Take for example the Dharug people who lived in a 40 mile radius of what is now known as Sydney and the Hawkesbury area. Pilger (2001) describes how when the first settlers arrived on their land they resisted the invasion for 22 years it what amounted to warfare, inflicting large loses on the settlers, until finally they were wiped out. Examples of repression included the declaration in 1804 that colonialists had permission to shoot aboriginal resistance, martial law being declared in New South Wales after clashes between settlers and aborigines in 1824 and the extraordinary account of a State Governor leading a column of police who attacked and killed a tribe of aborigines (http://www.humanrights.gov.au/bth/timeline/index.htm). Not all colonialist were met with resistance, however all aborigines were met with the imperialistic ambitions of a foreign people intent on taking there land.

            It is difficult to place a number on the amount of aboriginal people that were killed during this period as it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that any kind of census was permitted on Aborigines. However in 1988 an anthropologist and an historian released a report that detailed that of the 750’000 aborigines they calculated to have populated Australia in 1788, as little as 150’000 remained only a short time after (2003: 199). This report was subsequently supported by numerous other academics that were responsible for illuminating the imperial history of Australia, the history that had never been truly recognised.

            This period of colonial invasion, occupation and slaughter is the first practice in Australia’s history that could be deemed genocide. The second  practice concerns the Federal and State government policies that separated aboriginal children from their parents with the aim of destroying their identities as ‘aborigines’ and assimilating them into white settler communities (http://eniar.org/stolen.html) . As early as 1869 institutionalised bodies such as the ‘Board for the Protection of Aboriginals’ were set up with the specific aim of separating children from their communities. Power over the lives of aboriginal children became complete with the ‘Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act’ in 1897 which gave the ‘Director of Native Welfare’ complete guardianship of all aboriginal children. This practice was extended in law by the ‘1905 Aborigines Act’ to include ‘half-caste’ children. These laws were specifically designed with the aim of ‘complete absorption’ of the half-caste aboriginal children into white communities (http://www.humanrights.gov.au/bth/timeline/index.htm). This story of control and humiliation of a peoples’ ability to grow as a community with a distinct cultural and political existence continued in some parts of Australia right up until the 1970’s. Those children who fell victim to these policies are known as the ‘lost generation’, however given the timescale of these policies it was far more than one generation that was lost.

            Having now looked at only a small number of the incidences that could be described as genocidal it is now the task of this essay to see if Australia and its actions against the aboriginal people is indeed genocide. In Article II of the United Nations (UN) ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’ there is a list as to what crimes exactly constitute genocide (http://www.ohchr.org/english/law/genocide.htm). Australia, using only the brief evidence I have used, is clearly guilty of committing genocide in a systematic fashion for nearly 200 years. Indeed if we consider Article I it is possible to say that these crimes of genocide were committed in times of peace and war. How can the Dharug people’s 22 year struggle for their land be described any differently? Only a cursory look at international law enlightens the mind to the institutionalised practice which sought the destruction of a distinct people.

            How do we define or place the Australian genocide in the lexicon of human atrocities? How have the aboriginal people come to terms with living amongst those same people who committed these crimes against them. Colin Tatz (2003: 199) argued in 1998 that under international conventions Australia was guilty of at least two forms of genocide; firstly the physical killing committed by settlers and rouge police watched silently by the state in the nineteenth century, and secondly the systematic state engineered removal of children from one group to another with the intention of destroying their aboriginality. Tatz is an aboriginal activist from South Africa. He is amongst a small group of people who from within Australia are willing to spell out the crimes committed by adoptive countrymen. In Australia there seems a reluctance to admit to the crimes of the past, possibly because of the appalling conditions that aboriginals still suffer, possibly because the mentality and conditions that allowed the genocide to be committed in the first place is still prominent in Australian society.

            The Australian genocide could be seen in terms of purely colonial excess, simply part of imperial reality. Jacobs (1996) argues that the Australian genocide is not simply an extension of imperial doctrine. The genocide must be viewed through the actions of settlers and the ideology that grew from within them once they had arrived. This ideology focuses mainly on the land rights. The notion of terra nullius or unoccupied land was central to the legitimisation of the theft of aboriginal land. This concept was not imperial doctrine but as Jacobs (1996) explains the ‘fantasy of an emergent nation, part of a future-orientated reconstruction by colonists’ (1996: 18). Although it is an acceptable notion that imperial ideology differed from an individual standpoint, it did not differ in its fundamental philosophy; that of social and economic assimilation. Sartre (1960) contends that we cannot go beyond the philosophy of Marx in his description of capitalist society. We can apply this to capitalist/imperialist reality; the ends become the means. The settlers wished to occupy their land for profit, no individual or collective appeals for aboriginal rights would get in the way of this fundamental, societal reality; no fundamental rival would have been permitted, as is the case today. There were voices from within Britain that called for the respect of aboriginal rights, but one only needs to look at present day British foreign ‘ethical’ policy to see that political necessity creates a different reality.

            The aboriginal people had a deep connection to the land that fed all aspects of their society. All cultural beliefs stemmed from this connection, something many generations of Australians have failed to appreciate. Although they are the most studied of peoples they are little understood (Burridge: 1973). The idea of terra nullius conflicted with aboriginal beliefs because their beliefs were not connected to the perceived rationality of law. Their rationality lay in nature, a rationality that had helped them survive for thousands of years on hospitable land. This idea of spatial ordering (Jacobs:1996) is important in understanding both the above notions of nature versus rationality based on law and also the situation in Australia today. It can be said that today there exists a Fourth World inside a First. The urban development of late twentieth century Australia display worrying signs of similar practices to the eighteenth and nineteenth described above.

            What is also worrying is some of the laws that are in operation today could arguably fit into a description of genocide. The only difference being that the law does not explicitly name the aborigines as their intended victims. Instead it is the social conditions and discriminations inflicted on the aborigines by law that disproportionately affects them. Aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell (2003: 203) describes how on visiting courts in the outback he sees perhaps only two whites out of a hundred. Unfortunately these statistics only seem to feed into the myth that aborigines are racially inferior, how else explain the millions of wasted Australian dollars on special programmes? This is a myth that permeates Australian society and goes a long way to explaining the continued degradation of the Australian aborigines. The truth is that today 25% less is spent on aborigines than whites per head (Pilger: 2003). Inequalities are institutionalised in Australia and many politicians and academics do little to counter them.       

            The present system in Australia remains systematically racist; not racist in-it-self but racist in practice. It is my contention that there was definitely an Australian genocide and that the legacy of the institutionalisation, there cementing in the laws of the land, continue today. Whereas the main pillars of genocidal law were repealed over time and aborigines were given almost equal footing with white Australians, there are still practices that bear the hallmarks of imperial domination. For example, although the is no longer a ‘Chief Protector’ of aboriginal children, there are arbitrary laws that take children away from aboriginal community, based on the rationality of law and with little consideration of aboriginal customs. It was not until 2001 that the mandatory ‘Sentencing Act’ was repealed, a law that sent children to prison for minor crimes such as stealing food and clothing (Pilger: 2003). Some would argue that all Australian subjects must adhere to this law, however how many white Australian’s need to steal food to survive?

            Human Rights groups, Amnesty International and even the UN have condemned the Australian government for its policies but there is a culture of denial that still permeates: A denial of the past and the present. Take the UN report in 1999, the ‘United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’ (http://aboriginalrights.suite101.com/article.cfm/australia_on_uns_black_list), or an Amnesty International report from 2006 that is titled ‘Australia: Human Rights Violations Rooted in Systematic Discrimination Against’ (http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGASA120081996?open&of=ENG-370). These reports could hardly be clearer.

            It is also clear that the reasons the aborigines are still persecuted today are startlingly similar to the reasons of the past. The ownership of land is central to understanding aboriginal peoples’ plight. It is clear that they are the rightful owners of land that was taken by theft and murder. It was the white settlers that originally took the land from them but it is multi-national corporations that own the land today. The same essential capitalistic incentive keeps the aborigines from claiming what is theirs. During the reconciliation process initiated by the Australian government on behalf of the aborigines, land rights were an essential issue. The ‘Native Title Act’ in 1993 gave aborigines the right to make claims for land under certain conditions (http://www.humanrights.gov.au/bth/timeline/index.htm). However this did not allow claims on privately owned land and became a watered down policy, an essentially empty gesture; as was much of the ‘reconciliation process’.

            In conclusion the atrocities inflicted on the aboriginal people are astonishing. What is perhaps even more astonishing is the way in which the past has been denied by academics, politicians (including Prime Minister’s such as John Howard) and society in general. This denial even of the existence of a genocide in Australia, as Colin Tatz puts it, comparable to the holocaust deniers in Europe. The truth is that genocide was committed in Australia, a genocide that still resonates into today’s society through systematic abuse of the ‘first Australians’.






Burridge, K (1973) Encountering Aborigines, Oxford: Pergamon Press Ltd


Jacobs, M.J. (1996) Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City, London: Routledge


O’Byrne, D.J. (2003) Human Rights: An Introduction, Essex: Pearson Education Ltd.


Pilger, J. (2001) Heroes, Great Britain: Vintage (first published 1986)


Pilger, J. (2003) The New Rulers of the World, London: Verso (first published 2002)


Sartre, J-P. (1960) Critique of Dialectical Reason, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/critic/sartre1.htm (accessed 12/07/06)


Young, E. (1995) Third World in the First, London: Routledge


http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGASA120081996?open&of=ENG-370 (accessed 30/12/06)


http://www.humanrights.gov.au/bth/timeline/index.htm (accessed 02/01/07)


http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/62.htm (accessed 30/12/06)


http://eniar.org/stolen.html (accessed 30/12/06)

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