International Repatriation of Indigenous Ancestral Remains

Where
Australia
When
2018
Who
Department of Communications and the Arts
Key objectives of the measure:

The Australian Government recognises that repatriation helps promote healing and reconciliation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and, through the Indigenous Repatriation Program, provides funding to facilitate the repatriation of Australian Indigenous ancestral remains from overseas collecting institutions and private collectors.

The Department negotiates directly with foreign governments, collecting institutions and private holders, for the unconditional return of Australian Indigenous ancestral remains held in overseas collections.

Australian museums return ancestral remains and objects of significance in response to requests from foreign government or community of origin. Where a museum does not have a specific policy on this, it is guided by the Australian Government’s policy on Indigenous repatriation and Articles 11 and 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Separately, Australian museums have repatriated to, or are in negotiations with, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, India, Canada, the United States of America and Japan.

Scope of the measure:
International
Nature of the measure:
institutional
Main feature of the measure:

The Australian Government supports Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People which states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to … the repatriation of their human remains; and that States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with Indigenous peoples concerned.”

International repatriation activities relating to the return of Indigenous Australian ancestral remains are managed by the Department of Communications and the Arts and involve collaborative, sensitive and complex processes. The Department works closely with Australian Indigenous communities and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through its overseas missions throughout the repatriation process.

The total number of Australian Indigenous ancestral remains held overseas is unknown. It is understood that many overseas collectors hold remains, including some located in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Many Australian Embassies and High Commissions in these countries have included Indigenous Repatriation in their Cultural Diplomacy plans.

Since 2014, the Department has facilitated the return of Australian Indigenous ancestral remains from the United States (1), Canada (1), Germany (48) and the United Kingdom (14).

Results expected through the implementation of the measure:

Expected results are that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains held by overseas governments, institutions and private holders are repatriated to the community of origin if known. When ancestral remains cannot be identified to a community, it is the view of Australia’s Indigenous peoples that ancestral remains are to be returned to Australia to be cared for.

Financial resources allocated to implement the measure:

Funding to support international repatriation is provided by the Australian Government through an annual indexed appropriation.

  • In 2017-18 this was A$659,000
  • In 2016-17 this was A$650,000
Main conclusions of the evaluation of the measure:

Consistent with best practice for program management, the Indigenous Repatriation Program (domestic and international) was evaluated in late 2016 to determine whether the program met the objectives of the Australian Government’s Policy on Indigenous Repatriation.

The evaluation was conducted internally by the Department and incorporated feedback from consultations with state and territory museums and the Australian Government’s Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation. The report delivered a number of key findings and included options for change across the domestic and international elements of the program.

Overall, the evaluation concluded that the program was strongly aligned to achieve the outcomes set by the policy but with challenges. Incremental changes to improve the effectiveness of the program are being implemented in stages to ensure a smooth transition.

Indicators used to determine impact:
Assessment was made against the objectives set out by the policy.
Goal(s) of UNESCO's 2005 Convention
Cultural Domain(s)
Multi-domain