The Human Rights Law Centre yesterday welcomed an interim Senate report condemning Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000 year-old Aboriginal site at Juukan Gorge in WA and recommending a suite of measures to improve protection of other significant sites across Australia.
The report, titled ‘Never Again’ was scathing of Rio Tinto’s “inexcusable” destruction of the site and called on the mining giant to provide restitution to the Traditional Owners of the site, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, to restore and remediate the site and impose a stay in relation to another 1700 other sites the company currently has permission to destroy pending a detailed review.
The report recommended a similar moratorium on the approval of the destruction of other sites by mining companies and reforms to strengthen Western Australia’s cultural heritage laws, as well as an urgent review of the federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.
Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that the report’s findings were a moment of reckoning for Rio Tinto and other mining companies across Australia.
“These findings send a crystal clear message that mining companies need to fundamentally rethink the way they do business and start respecting the rights of First Nations people, including their right to say no.
“The systemic practices highlighted by the report, including the use of ‘gagging clauses’ to prevent Traditional Owners from speaking out, are fundamentally at odds with the principle of free, prior and informed consent.
“Rio Tinto must now move to immediately action all of the Committee’s recommendations, including providing restitution to the PKKP, if it is to start rebuilding trust with Indigenous communities both in Australia and elsewhere.”
Ms Adams said the report also highlighted the urgent need for stronger legal protections of cultural heritage across Australia.
“As the Committee pointed out, there is currently nothing to stop another Juukan Gorge happening tomorrow. That is a major concern for all Australians. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations have been saying for years, we need not only stronger state laws, but a proper national framework for cultural heritage protection based on the principles of self-determination and free, prior and informed consent.”
Ms Adams said that Rio Tinto’s actions at Juukan Gorge were not an aberration, but rather symptomatic of a broader culture of disregard for communities’ rights and cultural heritage.
“Unfortunately Juukan Gorge is not an isolated incident. In the past few years, Rio Tinto has been the subject of serious human rights complaints by communities impacted by its operations in a number of different countries. We have been working with communities in Bougainville, for instance, who are dealing with the destruction of their sacred sites as well as serious pollution of their land and water sources as a result of the massive quantities of mine waste left by Rio.
“If Rio Tinto is serious about learning lessons, it needs to listen to communities and take responsibility for the human impacts of its activities.”
Image: Kate Ausburn