National Aboriginal and Islander Children’s Day is held on 4 August every year.
It is traditionally a time to celebrate the strength of Indigenous children and raise awareness about issues that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
This year, the day has taken on a more sombre note following a recent Four Corners report which exposed the systematic abuse of Indigenous youth in detention. Images of children being teargassed, restrained in chairs and covered by spithoods outraged many Australians and received global media coverage.
A royal commission was swiftly announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Thousands of Australians took to the streets to express their anger at the treatment of youth in juvenile detention centres. In Melbourne, protestors marched down Swanston Street and some sat in a make-shift cage outside Flinders Street station.
The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, released a statement expressing his shock at the footage.
“The treatment these children have been subjected to could amount to a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, to which Australia is a party,” it said.
“We encourage the government to extend the scope of the investigation beyond the Northern Territory in order to establish that such appalling treatment is not taking place in any other place of detention in Australia.”
This call to expand the scope of the inquiry is echoed by Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan, who said the royal commission should examine the wider policies and practices that contribute to an overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in prisons.
In the Northern Territory, Indigenous Australians make up approximately 90 per cent of the prison population and 96 per cent of juveniles in prison. A report in the Guardian Australia on Thursday revealed that the incarceration rate for Indigenous children in Western Australia is 53 times higher than for non-Indigenous youth. This is 30 per cent higher than the rates in the Northern Territory.
The royal commission was criticised by some groups for not adequately involving the Indigenous community. Former Northern Territory chief justice Brian Martin was initially appointed to head the royal commission. He resigned only days into the role because he believed he lacked the confidence of many sections of the Indigenous community.
The commission will now be jointly run by former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda and former Queensland Supreme Court judge Margaret White.
Vincent Schiraldi, who reformed the juvenile corrections systems in Washington DC and New York, recommended replacing youth detention centres like Don Dale with a community-based model that supports rehabilitation.
“Don Dale cannot be fixed,” he said. “They need to destroy it, pour salt on the ground and come up with another model that fits the local area,” he said at the United States Studies Centre in Sydney.
“I’m sure those staff, when they first came to work, didn’t think that they’d enjoy torturing kids. These institutions poison everyone they touch, not just the kids.”