Helen Ulli Corbett, Director and Executive Member of the Amnesty International Australia board
© Amnesty International
No matter how different people’s historical, social, economic or cultural backgrounds, their rights are universal.
Helen Ulli Corbett
Helen Ulli Corbett joined forces with Amnesty International in 1987 to expose the scandalous number of Indigenous people dying in police custody in Australia. She tells us how she went from taking local action to making a global impact.
I am a Yamitji-Noongar woman from Western Australia. When I was at school I had holiday jobs in food processing factories and saw racism and sexism in action towards migrant workers and the few Indigenous Australians able to secure employment there.
In 1983, I co-founded the Committee to Defend Black Rights, a group of family members of Indigenous people who had died in custody, which soon grew into a national organization. I went on a speaking tour and collected 100 stories of deaths in police custody from across Australia, and we campaigned for a Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody.
This was a pivotal moment. The Royal Commission was established and given a record budget of 40 million Australian dollars. It was the first time the Indigenous community had forced the government’s hand, and it led to substantial further funds and action at a federal level.
I think this was instrumental in the Australian Government signing up to the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Since then, other groups have been able to use this to secure their own rights.
I was involved in drafting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and this made me realize that, no matter how different people’s historical, social, economic or cultural backgrounds, their rights are universal. That is the most important lesson I’ve learnt from my activism: that human rights are inherent, universal and indivisible.