Call for Indigenous justice heard on global stage

Call for Indigenous justice heard on global stage

30th May 2024

This statement by Dr Hannah McGlade was delivered to the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues in New York on 15 April 2024. 


Warm regards to all Indigenous youth here at this session of the Permanent Forum. I especially acknowledge the youth from my country, Australia, youth who led a community movement to reform our national Constitution. Unfortunately, this proposed reform was defeated. Hence, our Constitution denies any recognition of First Nations people – and our rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is a setback in terms of having an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Sadly, our communities have been denied a Voice, especially our youth.

Last year, this Forum heard of horrific violence against Aboriginal youth in the Don Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory. The Forum recommended all nations comply with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and adopt the Optional Protocol to allow communications to the UN Committee on the  Rights of the Child.

Australia was also advised to ensure respect for the decision of the West Australian Supreme Court that found the conditions at Banksia Hill detention centre were unlawful. Youth were subject to rolling lockdowns and extensive periods of solitary confinement contrary to domestic and international law.

To its shame, Australia has the highest rate of Indigenous youth incarceration, child removals, and suicide, in the world.

Australia signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 but refuses to sign the Optional Protocol and retains a reservation to Article 37 which concerns the rights of children in detention.

Australia incarcerates Indigenous children in horrific conditions, in contravention of Article 37 which states: ‘a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’.

In Western Australia, the Casuarina men's maximum-security prison now has a unit dedicated to children and youth. The government was warned this would put children's lives at risk and late last year, Indigenous 16-year-old Cleveland Dodd became the first child death in custody. Over many hours Cleveland begged for water and called out for help in distress but was ignored by guards watching television.

The coroner's court examining his death heard that the conditions he experienced were unlivable, disgusting and inhumane and noted extensive periods of confinement, with youth locked up more than 20 hours a day in their cells.

Across the country hundreds of youths like Cleveland are incarcerated in cruel, harsh conditions – without help to overcome poverty, violence, racism, trauma and suffering in their lives. Many have undiagnosed disability and health treatment is still denied.

In Queensland, two youths have also died following incarceration and solitary confinement. The Child Death Review Board said the system was not rehabilitating young people but ‘served to cause further trauma, disconnection, and hopelessness’.[1]

Punitive mandatory detention laws, even for property offences, bail laws imposing onerous conditions that are impossible for youth to meet, criminalising children from just 10 years of age and solitary confinement, are all serious human rights violations.

Prisons are dangerous and no place for children, and children should never be imprisoned in adult jails. Prison should only ever be a last resort. Prisons are putting young people's lives at risk.

Most incarcerated children and youth were failed by the state – taken from their families by child protection systems that targeted and discriminated against Indigenous families for generations under assimilationist child welfare policies.

The Federal Government's policy of Closing the Gap is failing with increases in Indigenous incarceration, child removals and suicides.

Australia's Indigenous foreign affairs policy will fail without commitment to Indigenous rights and child and youth rights.

Recent investment in Justice Reinvestment programs is welcomed – but such programs cannot address racially discriminatory laws and systems which must be dismantled.

Australia must end all violence and abuse of Indigenous children and youth, raise the age of criminal responsibility to fourteen years consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and repeal mandatory detention laws.

Australia must sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and withdraw without further delay, its reservation to Article 37 prohibiting cruel and inhumane treatment of children.

The Commonwealth Government must show leadership on these issues, they cannot be complicit in the violence by refusing to support the rights of Indigenous children and youth under the Convention.

I call on the newly appointed Aboriginal Ambassador to support and promote the rights of Indigenous children and youth under the Convention and follow-up action on the advice of this Forum.

The state-sanctioned violence and abuse of children and youth, from criminal justice and child welfare, must end.

Their lives are precious, their lives matter. Thank you.

The ALA thanks Dr Hannah McGlade for this contribution.


Dr Hannah McGlade is a Kurin Minang human rights expert and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues. Her career has focused on justice for Aboriginal people, race discrimination law and practice, Aboriginal women and children, family violence and sexual assault. Dr McGlade’s Ph.D thesis received the Stanner Award for Excellence in Aboriginal research and was published by Aboriginal Studies Press in 2012: 'Our Greatest Challenge, Aboriginal Children and Human Rights'. She is an Associate Professor at Curtin Law School.



This is an edited version of an article first published by the National Indigenous Times.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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[1] Child Death Review Board, Queensland Family & Child Commission Annual Report 2022-23.

Tags: Indigenous justice Dr Hannah McGlade Convention on the Rights of the Child Indigenous incarceration Indigenous youth suicide UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues