Yoo-rrook Justice Commission

By Lauren Penny and Kerry Arabena

The Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, the nation’s first truth and justice process, is expected to begin in Victoria in July of this year and will run for three years. Named after the Wemba Wemba/Wamba Wamba word for ‘truth’, the Commission will examine both historical and ongoing injustices committed against Aboriginal Victorians since colonisation. To achieve its aims of truth-telling and listening, the Commission will engage both Victoria’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community.

A joint statement released by the Victorian Government and the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria (Assembly) outlines a commitment to telling the truth after ‘233 years of violence, dispossession and deprivation’. The Commission will be held independently from Government, following the appointment of five Commissioners. There will be a gender balance across the Commissioners and the majority must be Aboriginal, with at least two being Victorian Traditional Owners. It will aim to not only hear Aboriginal voices, but to actually listen to them and take ‘meaningful action in order to achieve real and lasting change’. This is imperative, particularly as there is a real risk that a truth-telling commission will ‘re-traumatise people’. Troy McDonald, a Gunai Kurnai man and member of the Assembly, has said people will need ‘a lot of support’ to speak out.

Ngarra Murray, a Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta, Dhudhuroa and Dja Dja Wurrung woman and fellow Assembly Member, said in a livestream discussion that the Commission obviously does not want to create more harm to Aboriginal people. The Commission will work to safeguard those who engage and interact with Yoo-rrook, and there will be important trauma-informed criteria around how Commissioners are selected. According to McDonald, the (Truth-telling) Committee and everyone involved need to be applauded for ensuring a trauma-informed approach is at the forefront of all considerations. He noted the importance of protecting Aboriginal people so that they can come forward with free, prior and informed consent to ‘share their stories in a safe way, which is an absolute pillar to the success of this inquiry’. 

While Yoo-rrook is the first truth and justice commission in Australia, there have been other truth-telling processes in our country including the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Bringing them Home Report. During the livestream discussion, Boon Wurrung Elder and Assembly Member Carolyn Briggs AM said that she has often wondered what was followed through with and what has been achieved:

 

                ‘We keep looking and keep reiterating or re-talking about the same thing, but there is never any sort of justice’.

 

Mcdonald said Yoo-rrook will be a ‘vehicle to deliver on unfinished business that was never dealt with effectively’ in previous commissions. He said the Commission will be ‘fair dinkum’ and Aboriginal people should take some confidence from the fact that it will have a strong human rights focus and ‘will be linked to international best practice’.

According to Professor Gregory Phillips, a Waanyi and Jaru man and chair of Ebony Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Institute, international experience shows that any process of truth-telling must result in substantive justice and healing. The Yoo-rrook Justice Commission will be modelled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), as well as other similar processes held in Canada and New Zealand. The TRC was established to uncover the truth about past human rights violations under apartheid, and to ‘help lead the nation away from a deeply divided past to a future founded on the recognition of human rights and democracy’. The Commission, which began in 1995, took a ‘victim-centred approach’ which emphasised the importance of victims and their right to tell the Commission their ‘stories of suffering and struggle’. It heard from more than 7,000 perpetrators and 21,000 victims who reported nearly 38,000 gross violations of human rights.

The Commission established that ‘actions taken in terms of apartheid law would not merely for that reason be regarded as illegal’ and there would be no Nuremberg-type trials (where Nazis were prosecuted for their crimes after World War II) for the many human rights violations which had been committed. In fact, it was the first commission to be given the power to grant amnesty to individual perpetrators in exchange for full disclosure of the truth, encouraging them to testify about human rights violations publicly. This open and transparent process was a distinctive feature of the TRC, unlike similar commissions which had been held behind closed doors. According to the Commission, their approach helped the nation to focus on values which are central to a healthy democracy:

This enabled it to reach out on a daily basis to large numbers of people inside and outside South Africa, and to confront them with vivid images on their television screens or on the front pages of their newspapers… The media also helped generate public debate on central aspects of South Africa’s past and to raise the level of historical awareness.

The way in which Commissioners were appointed was also transparent, with President Mandela choosing a ‘broadly representative committee’ to assist him in choosing appropriate Commissioners. Other unique features of the TRC included:

  • its strong powers of subpoena, search and seizure, leading to more thorough internal investigation and direct questioning of witnesses;
  • institutional and special hearings, allowing for direct contributions by those involved in specific areas of activism, policy proposals and monitoring such as NGOs;
  • a witness protection programme, allowing witnesses to come forward with information they feared might put them at risk; and
  • its size was much larger in terms of staff and budget than commissions before it.

The focus of the TRC was ‘a restorative justice which is concerned not so much with punishment as with correcting imbalances’ and restoring broken relationships with healing, harmony and reconciliation. Although the TRC has been described as ‘the gold standard’ in truth-telling commissions, it was not without its imperfections. Amnesty was ‘conditional on the crimes committed having been “political” and on full disclosure’, and it was granted or denied by a subcommittee independent from the one receiving testimony. In fact, most people who provided testimony to the TRC had their applications for amnesty turned down. Further, only a handful of those who were declined amnesty were ever prosecuted. Although the TRC’s recommendations were ‘widely considered to be one of the world’s most ambitious and comprehensive reparation policies’, the South African Government implemented few of them, including a ‘significantly more modest’ reparation policy. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who chaired the TRC process, described the Commission’s business as ‘scandalously unfinished’.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University in New York, recently told RN Breakfast that it is up to governments to take the recommendations of commissions seriously and ‘put in place the policy and other political mechanisms to enable those recommendations to become real’. According to the Ebony Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Institute, lessons from other countries, including South Africa and Canada, highlight that:

  • political will helps, but must not hinder, the independence of truth initiatives;
  • the voices of those aggrieved must be given primacy in decision-making apparatus;
  • any formal commission must have strong terms of reference and potentially legal powers;
  • issues of substantive justice like reparations and institutional and policy reform must be implemented; and
  • public education in the form of memorialisation, curricula reform and public ceremonies, and opportunities to remember and prevent, must occur.

While South Africa’s TRC was limited to political violence taking place between 1960 and 1994, Victoria’s Yoo-rrook Justice Commission aims to examine events going back to European colonisation, making it a ‘conceivably more radical and potentially more contentious initiative’.  

Murray described the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission as being incredibly important and long overdue in this country. She said the Commission will put in place mechanisms to deal with the human rights abuses of Aboriginal people, reparations, institutional reform and memorialisation – honouring the blood memory of ancestors. It is crucial that our governments recognise the ‘ongoing systemic harms’ that First Nations’ peoples face and implement significant structural reform.

First 1000 Days Australia acknowledges the continuing impact of colonisation and the resultant intergenerational trauma that affects our ability to parent our children in our own way. We understand the impact of overt and institutional experiences of racism and deeply entrenched experiences of marginalisation, disadvantage and exclusion which has seen some of our families only survive, not thrive. While there are many programs in place, there is a gap in the development and delivery of coordinated, effective, culturally safe interventions that foster strong partnerships and relationships between expectant parents and care providers within regions. First 1000 Days Australia aims to encourage a change of attitudes, practices, policies and programs that pertain to early life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. However, broader systemic change is required in order to close the gap and truth-telling is a critical part of this process.

According to Murray, truth-telling is a responsibility for all Australians. The process will be a ‘deep self-reflection and investigation of atrocities and the horrific incidents that has caused great upheaval to our people and our lands and our waters, and it still continues to impact our people today’. As McDonald highlighted, ‘if the truth is told, it can only lead to a better version of Australia’.

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