Dissolution and resolution

10 September 2010

Megan Davis wants to use her time on the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to address the issue of Indigenous women, gender and violence. Photo by Darren Boyd.

Earlier this year Megan Davis created history by becoming the first Australian Indigenous woman elected to a United Nations body. James Giggacher looks at the inspirations and hopes behind what is already a remarkable career.

Megan Davis didn’t grow up in an activist Aboriginal family.

“When my non-Indigenous mother and Aboriginal father separated, mum did the best she could to foster a scholarly environment in our housing commission house,” Davis says.

“Politics was her core passion and even though we weren’t very wealthy growing up, we always had a subscription to Time magazine. I think I have read every single issue since 1981.”

In this way, Davis says, she became aware of the United Nations and the role it plays in fostering world peace. She says this realisation set her on her path towards human rights law.

Her passion for law in general seems to come from an unlikely source – a man infamous in Australia’s political history. During her final year of primary school, Davis’ mother gave her a copy of Matters for Judgement, the biography of Sir John Robert Kerr, the Governor-General who dismissed the Whitlam Government in 1975.

“I guess it was because I was fascinated by politics growing up and particularly really fascinated by the constitution,” says the Visiting Fellow at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies.

“The book was about the double dissolution and it was something I was obsessed with. It was then that I knew I wanted to do law.

“So whilst some of my colleagues were motivated towards a career in law by really significant historical events and issues to do with Indigenous people, I can honestly say it was because of the double dissolution.”

The little girl so enthralled by constitutional law issues has gone on to forge a remarkable career as an international human rights lawyer. She recently submitted her PhD, which investigates the relationship between Indigenous women and liberal democracy. She undertook her doctorate at the Regulatory Institutions Network at ANU, supervised by Dr Hilary Charlesworth, while also directing the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of New South Wales.

Prior to this, Davis completed an internship as the first UN Indigenous Fellow at the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. There she began to help draft the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a process she continued to participate in until the final draft was completed in 2005.

Given this record of hard work and achievement, it is perhaps no surprise then that Davis has recently created history, being named the first Australian Indigenous woman elected to a UN body.

In April this year she was selected by the 54 countries of the UN Economic and Social Council to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a body that advises the UN on indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.

Her appointment to the forum is also the first time that an Australian Aboriginal person has been nominated for a UN role by the Australian Government. Davis says she is looking forward to advocating for indigenous peoples’ rights in international law.

“This is a really exciting opportunity for me, and I am really honoured to be nominated by the Federal Government,” says Davis.

“I was very fortunate that the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, and the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, nominated me for this position because it rounds off in a very nice way the experiences that I have had at the start of my law career.

“Personally, I feel that whilst it wasn’t always my intention, it is what I have always been working towards.”

Davis says she wants to use her time on the forum to address the core issues that affect Aboriginal women, such as violence. She points out that the there is often an assumption in international law that the experiences of Indigenous men and women are often the same.

“A lot more work needs to be done by international law – particularly human rights committees – to elaborate on how the rights of women and individuals, within a collective, fit in with broader collective rights,” says Davis.

“One of the main roles that the forum has is coordinating the work of the UN. It really is what the forum exists for. So during my three years in the UNPFII I am really interested in seeing what the UN is doing on the issue of Indigenous women, gender and violence and how they can do things better.”

Her appointment to the forum also signals a cultural change, Davis says. She claims that too often Aboriginal women are overlooked for important roles due to a general assumption that “they just can’t do the job”.

“It was clear that my appointment, and that a woman fill the position, was also really important to [the UN] too, because we won a majority of votes” adds Davis.

During her three years on the forum, which begin in 2011, Davis also wants to look at how the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is being implemented by different states as well as how it is used by different courts.

“I am really interested in how the declaration is being used by Aboriginal people. A concern I have about the declaration is that Indigenous communities so often focus on what the state is doing to implement the declaration.

“I think it is really important for Aboriginal communities to take it to government themselves, to take to all their meetings at every level of government and agitate. When we only focus on what the state is doing, there is not so much attention on how communities themselves can use the declaration.”

Davis says that international law is only as strong as a state’s commitment to it as a body of law. Yet the scholar believes there is cause for optimism.

“We know that international law has been a really important, if not the most important, factor in influencing domestic legal systems in the way that governments behave towards indigenous people.

“I think international law has been absolutely critical to rights development for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia…It has been the most significant influence.

“There is that constant question in Aboriginal affairs as to whether international law is as useful as we think it is. But I also think that most people could not dispute the influence it has had, particularly the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

“Even 30 years ago it would have been unheard of to have an Indigenous rights declaration like we do today,” Davis says, clearly impressed.

One can’t help but also be impressed at just how far a young Indigenous schoolgirl obsessed with politics and the constitution has come.

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