Recommended Sponsor - Buy Original Artwork Directly from the Artist

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Kevin Bell, Professor and Commissioner, Yoorrook Justice Commission, Monash University

Formal hearings of the Yoorrook Justice Commission began today in Melbourne. This is timely because March 24 is the International Day for the Right to the Truth.

Yoorrook is a royal commission to establish an official public record of the systemic injustices of colonisation based on the experiences of the First Peoples of Victoria. This is reflected in its name: “Yoorrook” is a word in the Wemba Wemba/Wamba Wamba language for “truth”.

It is the first such body in Australia to have this function and the first in the world to be Indigenous-led. Four of Yoorrook’s five commissioners are Indigenous, three of them Victorian Traditional Owners.

The scope of this Indigenous-led pursuit of truth-telling reflects the role of the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria in calling for the establishment of Yoorrook in 2020. In addition, Yoorrook is independently connected with the Victorian treaty-making process.

Enforcing human rights law in Victoria

Under international human rights law, establishing the truth about gross or systematic human rights violations is a fundamental legal right to which the International Day draws attention. It forms part of a broader right to reparations and making sure such violations never happen again.

States are obliged to give effect to human rights law in their systems of justice, including through official fact-finding mechanisms like royal commissions and institutional reforms.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission was established within this justice framework. The Commission’s founding Letters Patent list the key international human rights instruments that support Indigenous peoples’ right to truth.

Among these documents are a set of principles agreed by the United Nations to protect human rights. These state that all peoples have the right to “know the truth” about past events involving heinous crimes and human rights violations.

Read more:
From dispossession to massacres, the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission sets a new standard for truth-telling

Acknowledging human rights violations and the right to truth

Human rights violations can occur in different settings. One example is a conflict situation during a political transition from dictatorship to democracy, during which violations such as torture and disappearances have sadly been common tactics.

Another example is settler colonialism, as happened in Victoria. Violations such as massacres of Indigenous peoples and dispossession of their territories can occur, which Yoorrook will examine and place on the public record.

In all such settings, the impacts of violations are commonly hidden by the perpetrators, which governments must actively prevent. If they fail to fulfil their obligation to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice, this can give rise to a harmful culture of impunity, both in the institutions of governnment and in broader society.

For the public not to know or deny the truth magnifies the suffering of victims, and their family and broader community. It creates circumstances in which trauma can be experienced individually and collectively, generation after generation, as many First Peoples in Victoria experience.

Examples of truth commissions abroad

There have been more than 40 truth commissions throughout the world since the second world war. Their main focus has been on conflict and like situations. Perhaps the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa is best known. But it was not tasked with examining and reporting on the colonial underpinnings of apartheid. It could only tell a partial truth.

More recent commissions have examined particular injustices caused by colonisation. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada examined First Nations residential schools, a mechanism for forced assimilation of Indigenous children. Some 150,000 children were removed and separated from their families and communities to attend these schools.

On the Commission’s recommendation, a compensation scheme (among many other things) was established. According to the report of the oversight committee, this amounted to more than C$3.2 billion in reparations in 2021. This commission told a fuller truth about a systemic injustice of colonisation and cultural genocide.

Truth and justice commissions in developed countries having colonial origins (like Australia) now commonly apply these concepts and methods. This is termed a “transitional justice” approach because it enables states to transition out of situations invovling human rights violations and systemic abuses with justice for victims. In a recent UN report, Yoorrook is discussed as a prime example of this approach.

Read more:
Forgiveness requires more than just an apology. It requires action

Truth-telling and treaty-making in Victoria

The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for Voice, Treaty and Truth. Substantive recognition of Indigenous people in Australia requires institutional reform across multiple inter-connected domains.

Yoorrook fits into this pattern. It is a truth and justice commission with a strong mandate to recommend institutional reform addressing systemic injustice. It is also connected with other processes that are underway. One is treaty-making in a way that supports self-determination for First Peoples. Another is recognising and compensating the Victorian Stolen Generations.

The Stolen Generations Reparations Steering Committee was also the product of Indigenous leadership. On its recommendation, the Victorian government has established a reparations scheme for individuals and families affected. Under the scheme, $155 million will be made available so that about 1,200 survivors can can access payments of $100,000.

As the International Day recognises, the right to the truth is a human right of great importance that forms part of a broader justice framework. Truth and justice commissions may apply this framework when examining historic and ongoing systemic injustices caused by colonisation in settler states like Australia. Yoorrook is doing so in the Victorian context. It will be delivering an interim report this June and its final report in July 2023.

The Conversation

Maggie Walter receives funding from the Australian Research Council and NHMRC

Senior Researcher and Claimant in the Yorta Yorta Struggle for land justice that culminated in the Yorta Yorta Native Title Case 1994-2002. President of the Koori Heritage Working Group that achieved major reforms of the Cultural Heritage Legislation in Victoria in the mid-1980s. Key advocate for the United Nations Decleration of Self Determination for First Nations Peoples.

Eleanor Bourke, Kevin Bell, and Sue-Anne Hunter do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. The right to the truth about the impact of colonisation on First Peoples in Victoria –