ALUMNA HANNAH DONNELLY: From the UN to the Australian Human Rights Commission

2 August 2011

Back in 2007, Hannah Donnelly says she was a little daunted moving from her home and family in Inverell, New South Wales, to Sydney to study a Bachelor of International and Global Studies

But from that vantage, it wasn't such a big leap to New York, where she was recently an Indigenous youth delegate to the 10th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

The UNPFII advises the Economic and Social Council of the UN, and has a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic development, human rights, culture, education, environment, and health.

As a youth delegate, Hannah was primarily there as an observer, however she says she readily took up some important extra responsibilities when the opportunity came.

"I volunteered to be in charge of speakers' registration and lodging of interventions. I was running around talking to people, lobbying the members to try and get them to use our intervention in the final report, or just making sure that our Australian speakers were able to get up in the agenda that was on the floor.

"So there was a lot of running around. It was very busy, but very fun. It was such a great experience."

A perspective from the inside, Hannah says, has reshaped her views on the UN system.

"One of the things that struck me was that there is a heavy bureaucratic layer to everything that happens there. That doesn't mean that it's not effective, it just means there are lots of processes, but they're all necessary."

"Of course, a lot of the work is about and speeches and words, not about actions, but if you don't have a particular standard to begin with—like the instrument we now have, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which is an amazing thing—you can't go on.

A document like the UNDRIP is needed, Hannah says, before states can implement indigenous rights into domestic legislation—something she hopes to see happen in Australia soon.

"Once the UN supports these new human rights frameworks, the more concrete changes for the world's indigenous people spring from there."

Despite many cultural differences, Hannah says that the various groups of indigenous people from around the world share common inequalities.

"It's eye-opening: you go there and you see all these different groups who have diverse cultures, but who as indigenous people—predominantly colonised people—also have many of the same issues and problems that we are facing in Australia."

"Now that we have the UNDRIP, all the members can speak the same language. And nearly every group will talk about the problem of 'free, prior and informed consent' in the context of government consultation or negotiation with government policies. Each group will have similar issues with the environment and land rights. Across the globe there is very similar stuff going on. A lot of Australians don't know that Indigenous Americans and Indigenous Australians face some very similar issues in these areas. If anything, Australia's lagging a bit behind! But we're getting there."

Hannah herself is a Wiradjuri woman from the Kamilaroi communities of Tingha and Inverell, and has just finished a Bachelor of International and Global Studies at The University of Sydney University. Since a fruitful Aurora Project internship in tail end of her degree, she has been asked to work part-time at the Australian Human Rights Commission in the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Social Justice Unit.

"It's been really great to work with Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, someone who I've looked up to, who I think is a really important person in the community and in Australia, and working here is such a thrill."

"I've been given a lot of responsibility in different areas—I've worked on research for the Social Justice Report, on case studies for the Native Title Report, which is going to be really helpful to me now that I've finished my degree. I kind of feel this has given me lots of skills, and will really open different doors for me. I've been lucky."

For Hannah, her experiences from Inverell to Sydney to New York would not have been possible without the knowledge and the support she gained at the University of Sydney—both on and off the curriculum.

"It was particularly hard for me to make the decision to come to Sydney, because I was from a very rural community, and it was hard to leave family and community behind. But coming to Sydney Uni, it was really great to have the Cadigal Special Entry Program in my first few weeks. And especially the Koori Centre: I made lots of friends there. I basically got through Sydney Uni because they have the Koori Centre, and just little things like the computer room there—they provide a place where you can feel supported and safe."

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208

Email: 21371b147835391516330609085d4528237b570d1f5c2a39