Back to Prindle Institute

The Question of Genocide in Australian History

black and white photograph of aboriginal dwelling

In 1948, Australia was one of the first countries to sign the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In 1998, three Indigenous activists attempted to bring a case against the country’s then Prime Minister John Howard and several other prominent politicians. The letter they dispatched to all Members of Parliament and Senators, as well as foreign diplomats and the UN read, in part:

“The Commonwealth of Australia is responsible for past, present and continuing genocide; attempt to commit genocide and complicity in genocide against the original peoples of the land claimed by the commonwealth of Australia to be under its sovereign administration.”

In 1949, the Genocide Convention Bill, written to approve Australia’s ratification of the UN Convention on Genocide received bipartisan support in Parliament. But in the intervening years, despite being an enthusiastic signatory, Australia had not enacted it’s articles into law, and, though there were other findings against the appellants in the case against Howard et al, there was no corresponding law in Australia that dealt with the specific crime of genocide to be prosecuted in the first place. This legal situation has not been sufficiently remedied.

Meanwhile the national conversation about genocide; in Australian colonial history, in modern governmental policies and its remnants in current systems, is fraught.

Genocide is a profoundly confronting, disturbing subject; most people have very strong views about genocide and rightly associate it with events like the Nazi holocaust, Pol Pot’s campaign of slaughter in Cambodia, or the horrors of Rwanda.

While many are deeply disturbed by the suggestion that genocide could be invoked to characterize the Australian colonial history/experience of Australia’s First Nations, and many reject and repudiate the claim, others believe that the strongest moral and criminal terms are indeed warranted to condemn aspects of Australian colonization. And many have argued that there are at least three or four distinct, intended attempts or instances of genocide in historical and modern Australia.

The term ‘genocide’ was adopted after WWII as a way of comprehending in moral terms and prosecuting in legal terms the crimes of the Nazis against the Jewish people across Europe.

In the present UN Convention, genocide is defined as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Hannah Arendt, following her coverage of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, defined genocide as ‘the desire that a certain distinct people disappear from the earth.’ Her definition tries to grapple with the moral terribleness of attempting to expunge an entire people from existence. Thus the concept of genocide is a unique moral category through which to apprehend the particular character of acts driven by the intention to destroy a people.

Genocide need not refer to the kinds of atrocities, or scale on which they occurred, of the Nazi Holocaust; there is much more to the concept than mass murder – the attempt to destroy a human group in whole or in part can take many forms.

When Australia supported the convention there was a notable, and seemingly unquestioned, absence of any second thoughts regarding colonial or modern Australian treatment of Aborigines. Indeed, forcible removal of Aboriginal children intensified in the twentieth century and was carried out until the 1970’s.

During the proceedings surrounding Australia’s adoption of the Genocide Convention Bill (to approve Australia’s ratification of the Convention) one Member of Parliament said, of Australia:

“That we detest all forms of genocide and desire to remove them arises from the fact that we are a moral people. The fact that we have a clean record allows us to take such an attitude regarding genocide.”

This seems, even given the prevailing views of Australian history, to have been an oddly blinkered view since Ralph Lemkin, the lawyer who first coined the term genocide to describe the Holocaust (just a few years before it was adopted by the UN), thought it had many historical precedents and he mentioned in particular the actions of the Tasmanian colonial government of the 1820s and 30s which resulted in the virtual extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines during that period of colonial expansionism.

During the frontier wars of the early years in all areas of colonial settlement and expansion through the continent of Australia First Nations people resisted and fought back against the British; but as those wars escalated in the 1800’s there were many instances of mass killings of Aborigines by white settlers.

In official literature and settler records (letters, diaries and the like) there are numerous characterizations of the colonial relation with the indigene as one of extermination. Some accounts endorse this and some find it regrettable. Massacres continued into the early twentieth century, after which a policy of forcible removal of children from Aboriginal parents into missions or non-Aboriginal households continued in various forms until into the 1970’s.

As per the UN Convention, genocide means “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such…” The inclusion of “intent” has been a major, and contentious, issue in how genocide is defined, and how it is identified as such.

Intent is problematic, of course, because it can be hard to prove – but also it is problematic in case there is thought to be a disparity between the intention (of the state, or significant actors) to bring about an outcome and the failure to prevent it or cease activities that result in it. Thus genocidal intent can be particularly difficult to isolate in some situations of war, and in the context of colonization.

Thinking about the effects of colonization on Australian Aborigines (and on Indigenous people the world over) raises the question of whether colonization itself is a genocidal project, and how the inclusion of ‘intent’ in the conventional and legal definition can be located in that question; notwithstanding those specific episodes in both colonial and modern Australia that can be pointedly identified as candidates for the crime of genocide.

Scholars and activists, as mentioned above, have long considered the events in Tasmania to be a relatively clear case of genocide. Following a systematic campaign of dispossession and murder, in 1833 the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines were removed by the government to Flinders’ Island. Even as, in historical records, there are ample expressions of regret, gestures of paternalism, and attempts to “provide them every comfort,” this was understood at the time to be the terminus of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture. Flinders’ Island was essentially a place of death in whose confines the population declined so dramatically that demographic recovery was impossible.

On the fraught question of intention it is not altogether clear where its relationship to culpability stands. Does the intention have to be primary? Is it, for instance, to be considered genocide if the government of the day foresaw probable extinction of Aborigines as an effect of their policies yet carried on those policies unchanged? Is it genocide if, without (perhaps) the primary intention to destroy a human group, a government or other dominant social group carried out activities that hastened the extermination of the culture —  such as forcible dispossession of traditional and tribal lands, deprivation of resources depended upon for survival, massacre, incarceration, forcible re-education of children including loss of language and forced removal of children from Aboriginal families? Given this (incomplete) list of atrocities, it is really not a great stretch to identify the behavior of colonists and subsequent Australian governments as carrying out acts of genocide.

Lemkin argued that genocide is not just forced assimilation but a policy that by drastic methods “aimed at the rapid and complete disappearance of the cultural, moral and religious life of a group of human beings.” For Lemkin, genocide is present when a coordinated plan of actions is aimed at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of an ethnic, cultural or national group. The conclusion that this applies at least to certain specific episodes in Australian colonial and modern history, if not the whole colonial project, seems inescapable.

The final article of the UN Convention on Genocide makes special mention of the practice of removing children. The case brought against the then Prime Minister in 1998 accused the Commonwealth of acts of genocide in the policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their Aboriginal families which took place in the decades from 1010 to 1970. The victims of this policy are now referred to as ‘the Stolen Generations.’

This policy was designed to isolate Aboriginal children from their families and their cultures, and to destroy their relation to land and extinguish their traditional languages. The disastrous effects of this policy on the communities, families, culture, and individual lives of Aboriginal people throughout the nation continues to cause deep cultural trauma and affect health and social outcomes for Aboriginal people. It remains a deep wound in the national psyche for the whole country.

That genocide can take different forms does not render mass murder of Jews in gas chambers equivalent, in one sense, with forced removal of children from their parents – these things are clearly not morally equivalent in every way; nevertheless both belong to the moral category of genocide, and both have what Australian philosopher Rai Gaita has called “the inexpungible moral dimensions” of genocide, whatever the forms it takes or actions that entail it.

Even in the absence of a specific law in Australia, which makes prosecution of cases of genocide virtually impossible, understanding the necessity of the concept of genocide as a category to name the particular moral terribleness of attempting to expunge an entire human group and their particular, unique instantiation of humanity, is essential. This is true even though thinking about Australian history through that moral lens is extremely painful. As it is not clear that Australia can heal these wounds.

Healing, in the sense of making it better, may not be possible, but we have to show up to the conversation prepared to hear and tell the truth about our history, with the courage to acknowledge the role of genocide in that history.

The Ethics of Sending Life to the Moon and Beyond

image of space with stars and emission nebulas

It was recently reported that an Israeli organization SpaceIL sent thousands of dehydrated tardigrades to the moon. While the capsule crashed, and thus there is no way to know for sure if they survived, tardigrades are very resilient creatures who may be able to remain alive on the lunar surface in a dormant state. With this admission, a large host of ethical issues have been raised in the aftermath. These include the ethics of sending earth species to foreign environments and the ethics of private space organizations being able to act in space without regulation.

With regard to the issue of regulation, aerospace engineer Natalie Panek and NASA astrobiologist Monica Vidaurri have expressed concern. Viduarri is concerned about the fact that private organizations do not answer to any protections or ethics office. As reported by Vice, she and Panek have urged for more accountability when it comes to private organizations. Mika McKinnon of Vice notes, “while not illegal, the idea that a private company could accidentally scatter living creatures on the Moon within any oversight or even disclosure is unnerving.” To resolve this issue, many have urged for new regulations and laws to ensure that careful conversations are had before further life forms are sent into space.

The issue of sending earth life to foreign environments like the Moon or even Mars is even more complicated. For decades the idea of terraforming or changing a planet or other body to make it more habitable to human life has been considered. Ethically, there may be good reasons to do this, including allowing for more space for habitation, advancing our ability to study space, and because it may help preserve the human species in the long term.

The idea is also problematic. This is partially because we can’t be certain that there is no life in some of these locations. If we seed life to Mars and there is already life that we have not previously discovered, then it has the potential to drastically affect the planetary environment and harm local lifeforms. This can be ethically problematic not only because of the harm we could inflict on extraterrestrial life and extraterrestrial ecosystems, but if extraterrestrial ecosystems are contaminated it could also mean that we lose the ability to answer important scientific questions about the development of life in the universe.

One of the concerns is the possibility of interfering with an environment that we may not fully understand and may wish to study. This raises issues beyond merely interfering with potentially already existing life. A broader issue involves affecting or changing environments in space that do not have life. This concern is raised by Vidaurri who points out, “WE made something on ANOTHER world that we do not fully understand. It has an environment, even if we deemed it ‘barren’ to any life on earth.” If we wish to engage in any kind of terraforming or significant alteration of the Moon or Mars, then we face an inherent risk of contaminating a hitherto pristine environment.

Alternatively, this raises an important question about whether environments, even lifeless ones, have some kind of moral status. For instrumental purposes, preserving a pristine, lifeless environment may allow us to study it better. However, the concern raised by Vidaurri seems to be that an environment, even a lifeless, barren one, may have some inherent moral worth and so interfering with it is morally wrong. Environmental philosophers have considered similar questions.

According to Ronald Sandler, for an environmental collective to have inherent worth it must be goal-directed since otherwise we have no clear way to determine if it has been harmed or benefited. One environmental collective which he suggests may have such worth is ant colonies. However, ecosystems as a whole, he argues, are not cohesive or goal-directed enough to possess inherent worth. If an ecosystem can’t claim to have inherent worth, then it is even more difficult to claim that a lifeless environment does. If it does not, then it isn’t obvious why it is inherently wrong to change extraterrestrial environments like the moon.

This issue is not necessarily new either. In his 1997 book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan addressed the matter. Where life may already exist, he suggests that safeguarding our species by settling other planets may be offset by the danger we pose to such extraterrestrial life. But in the absence of such life, he notes “here I find myself an unapologetic human chauvinist…on behalf of Earthlife, I urge that, with the full knowledge of our limitations, we vastly increase our knowledge of the Solar System and then begin to settle other worlds.”

According to chemistry professor Michael Mautner, seeding the universe with life is a moral obligation. Since life on Earth will not survive forever, he claims that we have an obligation “to plan for the propagation of life” on other planets. He proposes a strategy to deposit primitive organisms on potentially fertile planets in order to help modify their environments and jumpstart evolutionary development. While he has noted the concern about interfering with potential extraterrestrial life that may already exist, he proposes to only target locations where life could not have evolved yet. However, this does not address the concerns of those who argue that it is wrong to modify pristine lifeless environments that may include the Moon.

In a 2009 article in the journal Bioethics, Mautner echoes Sagan’s point and the concern about modifying environments in space. Taking a more pragmatic view, he notes, “Seeding other planetary systems could prevent the study of pristine space but seeding a few hundred new solar systems will secure and propagate life while leaving hundreds of billions of pristine stars for exploration.”

Questions about the moral status of lifeless environments are going to be important as further exploration of space takes place. It joins questions like do we have the right to change environments in space to our liking? and to what extent should we take efforts to protect alien life that we may not even be able to detect? The answers to such questions may not only affect how we behave in outer space, but also on Earth as well.

Celebrating Invasion Day: Australia’s History War

Photo of the Sydney Harbor overlooking the Opera House and an Australian flag flying in the sky from a plane

On January 26 each year Australia celebrates its national holiday ‘Australia Day’ with official events including citizenship ceremonies and firework displays, as well as gatherings, barbecues and many other quintessentially Australian activities. But over the past several years, a debate has raged about whether it is appropriate to hold celebrations on that particular date, given its meaning for Australia’s Indigenous population (known also as Aborigines or First Nations People [1]), many of whom commemorate that particular date as Invasion Day.   

It was on January 26, 1788, that Captain Arthur Philip led the First Fleet into Sydney Cove, planting the British flag, and claiming the territory for the British Empire. The colonization of Australia meant severe degradation of traditional cultures which stretch back into prehistory.  The story of white, European settlement is, for First Nations people, a story marked — often dominated — by horrors of dispossession, massacre and attempted cultural genocide.

Inseparable from the ethical issues at stake in this debate — Aboriginal rights, justice and reconciliation — are broader philosophical issues about truth raised by vying interpretations of history. Disagreements about how the history of white settlement should be understood, and about how current generations of white Australians should respond, have become increasingly divisive over the past two decades, fuelled by the so called ‘history wars.’

At the time of European settlement, Australia had been inhabited by its indigenous occupants for over 60,000 years. That makes Aboriginal culture (though it is by no means homogenous) by far the oldest surviving, continual civilisation in the history of the world. The peoples of the First Nations made up over 600 individual Nations, with many different languages and cultural characteristics and customs.

Australia was colonized under the auspices of the doctrine of “Terra Nullius” (no-one’s land). The belief that the land did not belong to its Indigenous inhabitants rested on ignorance about the depth of the relationship of Aborigines to the land. To the European settlers, it justified their policy of driving Aboriginal people off lands in which they lived, hunted and fished, and it led also to many massacres of those who tried to resist. In the state of Tasmania, local Indigenous people were all but wiped out. In the state of Queensland, at least 65,000 estimated Indigenous people lost their lives defending their country in the frontier wars of the 1800s.

More recently, from the beginning of the twentieth century until roughly the 1960s, a government policy was in operation to remove Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal children from their Indigenous parents. The (so-called) Stolen Generation were taken and sent to homes or foster care, and in many cases were subject to abuse and neglect. A 700-page report entitled Bringing Them Home, the result of a national enquiry into the Stolen Children, was tabled in Federal Parliament in 1997. It detailed story after harrowing story of families torn apart and lives ruined by the grief and suffering visited on the victims of this state-enforced policy.

Currently, the situation for many Aboriginal people remains marked by disadvantage. For example, as of the 2016 census, First Nations People represented 3.3 percent of the total Australian population yet account for more than 28 percent of Australia’s prison population. Rates of youth suicide, violence, and substance abuse remain far higher for many Indigenous communities than for the population at large.

In the context of these egregious past and ongoing current injustices, many Indigenous people have asked the rest of the community to change the date of the national holiday celebrations. Many Aboriginal people feel both that they would like to be included in national celebrations, and simultaneously cannot feel included because of what the date means to them. They need the broader Australian community to hear their need for recognition of the wrongs they, as a people, have suffered. Indigenous television presenter, Brooke Boney said,

“This is the best country in the world… But I can’t separate the 26th of January from the fact that my brothers are more likely to go to jail than school, or that my little sisters and my mum are more likely to be beaten and raped than anyone else’s sisters or mum,” she said. “And that started from that day. For me, it’s a difficult day and I don’t want to celebrate it.”

A great many non-Indigenous people fully support Australia’s First Nations people in their call for a national holiday and celebration to be held on a date not synonymous with the pain and suffering of their people. Yet the call to change the date has encountered fierce ideological resistance from other sections of the community.  Keeping Australia Day on January 26 remains the official policy of both major political parties.

In an interview last year Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he understood that some who opposed celebrating a national holiday on January 26 did so out of respect for Aboriginal people, but said refusing to celebrate the day was “silly.” He recently wrote in a Facebook post: “Indulgent self-loathing does not make Australia stronger.”

There is a prevalent view that even though grave injustice was done to Aboriginal people in the past, colonization has also brought great benefit, and since contemporary Australians are not the perpetrators of historical wrongs, they need not, indeed should not, feel guilt or shame.

Many, especially on the socially conservative side in the history wars, argue that focusing on the darkest elements in Australian history eclipses the nation’s achievements, fosters disunity rather than togetherness and threatens to drown national pride in national sorrow. Many also feel confronted by the suggestion that they could or should feel shame for the past actions of others.

Yet the Prime Minister’s statement that “indulgent self-loathing does not make Australia stronger” appears not only to reject the so-called ‘black armband’ view of Australian history in unequivocal terms, but to seriously underestimate either the injustices done to Aborigines, or the depth of their effects. Racism of this kind that was behind the dispossession based on Terra Nullis and the policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children is constituted by a very deep-seated failure of white European colonizers to acknowledge the full humanity of their Indigenous victims.

To illustrate this failure, Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita emphasizes a couple of key moments. At the time of forced removals of Aboriginal children, James Isdell, a minister for protection of Aborigines in the Western Australian government, said that “no matter how frantic an Aboriginal mother’s momentary grief was at the time, they soon forget their offspring.” [2]

But in 1992, a high court ruling (The Mabo decision), overturned the doctrine of Terra Nullius doctrine. That judgement acknowledged that Aboriginal People’s spiritual relationships to the land are deeper than can be conveyed by the notion of ownership. [3] Then, given the definition of genocide decided by the 1948 Genocide Convention, The Stolen Generation’s Bringing Them Home report demonstrates that “The policy of forcible removal of children from Indigenous Australians to other groups for the purpose of raising them separate from and ignorant of their culture and people could properly be labelled genocidal.” [4]

These pernicious government policies represent a denial of the full humanity of Aboriginal people – their connection to their land, their love for their children. The willingness of other Australians to dismiss the feelings of hurt endured by Indigenous Australians by refusing to change the date of national celebration only compounds that injustice. As the Mayor of Darebin Council in Melbourne, Susan Rennie, told ABC Radio: “the people for whom the celebration is most hurtful should be listened to… we have consistently heard from Aboriginal / First Nations people in our community that the date is hurtful and causes distress… why wouldn’t we respond to that and think about changing the date.”

A full conception of justice would need to acknowledge what Indigenous people are saying and what they need in order for reconciliation to occur. This recognition is not merely limited to acknowledging past wrongs but perceiving ongoing injustice. That does not mean that this generation of non-Indigenous Australians, for whom there is likely to be no direct connection to those historical wrongs, should feel guilt, though some doubtless do. But it does seem to entail that a full moral appreciation of the injustices suffered include an appropriate sense of shame.

So what should a country be celebrating with a national holiday such as this? It is natural, and it is right, it seems to me, to feel a sense of pride in one’s nation. But, that sense of pride should be founded on a sufficiently deep conceptual sense of what pride is, or should be, if national pride is not going to collapse into nationalism and jingoism. To take full moral possession of the dark aspects of a nation’s history is not anti-patriotic but authentically patriotic. True patriotism should be genuine love of one’s country, and not a hollow, jingoistic nationalism of the sort which leads someone to confuse acknowledging the shame many Australians feel with “indulgent self-loathing.”

 

Notes

[1] First Nations is plural because there were thousands of tribes many with their own language and cultural traditions inhabiting Australia prior to colonization.  

[2] Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking About Love & Truth & Justice, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 1999, p57. My analysis here draws especially on several chapters that pertain to issues of Aboriginal dispossession and genocide in his book A Common Humanity.

[3] Gaita, 1999, 74.

[4] Gaita, 1999, 116; https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/pdf/social_justice/bringing_them_home_report.pdf 234-239

Environmental Ethics for the Red Planet

Image of Mars from space

Elon Musk recently claimed that the colonization of Mars needs to be prioritized, lest a catastrophe such as World War III wipe out humanity on this planet before we make it to another. And yet, colonization runs headlong into another scientific goal for our exploration of Mars: the search for indigenous Martian life. The problem, in simple terms, is that human colonists will undoubtedly bring bacteria and other microscopic life forms from the planet Earth. If these life forms of terrestrial origin take root in the Martian landscape, scientific research may lose the ability tell indigenous from non-indigenous life forms. Scientists worry that these terrestrial lifeforms may even kill off the Martian ones (if they exist). And wouldn’t that be tragic? Continue reading “Environmental Ethics for the Red Planet”