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With the best of intentions: the removal of Aboriginal children and the question of genocide

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posted on 2022-03-29, 01:24 authored by Stuart James Bradfield
Genocide is a word that evokes many responses. From fascination to revulsion, it provokes reaction. For many, it is the ultimate crime of humanity, the final denial of the most fundamental of human rights - that of a people to exist. Even a consensus on the meaning of genocide has yet to be reached, fifty years after the term was coined in the shadow of the Holocaust. Consideration of genocide continues, almost inevitably, to be affected by this, its ultimate expression, often in subtle, subconscious ways. The Holocaust we know to be genocide, a label which can also be comfortably applied to the bloody conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi. Such obvious tragedies - safely located in the past, or on the other side of the world - demand recognition in this way. The idea of genocide as part of our history is an idea that does not sit so easily. Yet in 1997, it was alleged by a comprehensive National Inquiry that for much of the twentieth century Australia had committed this same crime against its Indigenous population. The forcible removal of Aboriginal children was found to constitute genocide according to international law, based on the United Nations definition. This allegation immediately raises a number of questions about the nature of genocide itself, but for Australia it brings into sharp focus fundamental issues concerning our history, the process of re-evaluating that history, and at the core of the issue, the nature of relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. The basic question is whether Australia really can be seen as guilty of genocide. This is the central aim of the thesis - to investigate this claim of the National Inquiry, as judged against international law. Does the forcible removal of Aboriginal children constitute genocide, as defined by the United Nations? Assumed in such a question is the validity of this specific framework. While broader notions of genocide are touched on throughout, for a number of reasons it will be shown that when discussing genocide, it is important to refer to the international crime as it is specifically defined by the United Nations. This is not only because its reference to removal of children appears to be immediately appropriate to the Australian case, but primarily because it remains the only internationally recognised definition of genocide. In exploring this central question of whether the Australian case constitutes genocide, the UN definition of genocide comes under scrutiny. This problem is investigated because it may be, I believe, the first time the removal of Aboriginal children has been examined with specific reference to a detailed analysis of the crime defined by the United Nations. This is not surprising, given that most political scientists, historians and others lack a familiarity with the field of genocide studies, which continues to be dominated by the Jewish experience. Just as the number of publications on the Holocaust and other genocides remains prolific, the field of Australian history, and particularly Aboriginal history, has received increased attention over the past twenty years. However, there remain only a few scholars in Australia who have specifically discussed the Aboriginal experience with reference to genocide.1 This situation may, in time change because of the of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (the National Inquiry), which only handed down its Report in June 1997. The Report, Bringing Them Home, will not be not analysed in its entirety. This thesis will investigate the manner in which it raised the allegation of genocide, which, for my purposes, is its key finding. Initially, the thesis attempts to establish the question of genocide as one with contemporary political significance. How is the allegation of a history of genocide received by different groups today? As a label, genocide can be a powerful mechanism not just in accruing a certain amount of 'moral capital', but also in claims for specific compensation. The allegation of genocide is placed in a contemporary context through an analysis of two major submissions to the National Inquiry. In approaching the positions outlined by the Commonwealth and the key Aboriginal organisation, Link-Up, genocide is situated as representing a particular historical narrative. The submissions are examined in terms of the way they engage with this narrative, which could be expected to coincide with contemporary political positions. The allegation of genocide corresponds with the 'Aboriginal view' of history, and in turn, it has a certain political usefulness for this group. On the other hand, a position which negates historical reassessment does not allow for a finding of genocide, allowing avoidance of any implications which may flow from the National Inquiry's allegation. In viewing the National Inquiry in these terms, the political use of history emerges as an underlying theme of the thesis. The question of genocide is primarily investigated on a theoretical basis. How does the UN definition apply to the policies of Aboriginal child removal, and more particularly, the rationale behind them? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to thoroughly investigate the definition of genocide found in international law. To understand how it applies to Australia, it is argued here that we must first discover the origins of the word. How did it come about, and what did its founder, Raphael Lemkin, mean when he coined the term? In tracing genocide from its 'birth' to its emergence at the centre of a United Nations Convention, two major points become clear: firstly, the crime of 'genocide' passed into international law in order to protect the right of human collectivities to exist. Secondly, for the crime of genocide to be proven, a certain intent to destroy a group must be found. This notion of intent is at the centre of much of the theoretical discussion contained in the thesis. The fact that the 'forcible removal and transfer of children' is specifically listed as one of the acts that may constitute genocide is illustrative of the fact that the conception of genocide in international law is perhaps broader than its common usage. This clause also has particular implications for Australia, where the removal of Aboriginal children has for some years been an acknowledged part of Australia's past. For the crime of genocide to be proven, however, not only the act be present, but also the intent. In Australia, removals were carried out for most of the twentieth century, under a range of policies which differed both between States, and over time. It is beyond the scope of this work to analyse the practice of seventy years of State and Federal legislation. The central question of proving or refuting the claim by the National Inquiry is approached then, from the perspective of trying to discover the rationale for removing Aboriginal children. What was the thinking behind removal policies? Was there evidence of 'intent to destroy' the Aboriginal people through the removal of children? It would be impossible to establish uniformity of opinion over the course of many decades, on different sides of the continent, from the highest Canberra bureaucrat, to the lowest outback Patrol Officer. In determining the intent of removal policies, the focus is on certain key periods of change, and the policies they produced. The initial Aboriginal affairs Conference of 1937 is investigated because it brought together all the prominent thinkers in the field of Aboriginal policy. In establishing the new policy of 'absorption', the conference was unusually explicit in stating the intention of their policies. Similarly, the chief architect of the policy of assimilation, Paul Hasluck, clearly articulated the aims of his 'new' policy when it was officially adopted in the 1950s. The removal of Aboriginal and so called 'half caste' children remained a prominent part of both these policies. While the removal of Aboriginal children stopped being part of official policy in the late 1960s, the period immediately following this is briefly examined in an attempt to discover whether policies of genocide have continued into the more recent past. As stated, this thesis will attempt to determine the validity of the charge that the removal of Aboriginal children constitutes genocide, according to international law. It investigates the allegation in the context of a specific finding by a National Inquiry, which handed down its findings in June 1997. It does not investigate other examples of the historical experience of Aboriginal people which may constitute genocide, such as killings by settlers. The thesis is also not concerned with discussing specific reactions to the Report because these are still unfolding. At the time of writing (November 1997), no comprehensive response had been given by the Federal Government. Given this omission, the Commonwealth and Link-Up submissions serve to broadly illustrate the 'Government' and 'Aboriginal' positions on the National Inquiry, and through it, the allegation of genocide. Investigating the issue of genocide involves recognising certain difficulties which emanate from the term itself. Its often emotive usage has led to the situation where it can be embraced or rejected with little or no reference to its factual basis. When discussing the question of genocide it may be impossible to do so in a completely detached manner. In fact, given that we are dealing with the destruction of human life, such an approach may not be appropriate in any case. That said however, it is possible to apply a rigorous analytical framework to the question. Genocide is the subject of a United Nations Convention recognised by hundreds of states around the globe.


Alternative Title

Removal of Aboriginal children and the question of genocide

Table of Contents

Introduction -- 1. Introducing genocide to Australia: the national inquiry -- 2. 'The crime without a name': defining genocide in international law -- 3. Determining intent: the rationale for Aboriginal child removal -- Conclusion -- Appendix.


Submitted in (partial) fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts (Honours), Macquarie University, 1997. Coursework. Bibliography: leaves 74-79

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis bachelor honours


Thesis (BA(Hons)), Macquarie University

Year of Award



Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Stuart James Bradfield 1997.






79 leaves

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