March 3, 2007

Aboriginal bones dispute could be settled by mediation

Posted at 12:23 pm in Similar cases

Britain’s Natural History Museum has offered to take the dispute over testing on Aboriginal remains to mediation in a bid to resolve the differences between the two parties.

The West Australian

Mediation for Aboriginal remains tussle
28th February 2007, 20:54 WST

A British Museum involved in a legal wrangle over the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aborigines has offered to take the dispute to mediation to avoid appearing in London’s High Court.

The Natural History Museum wrote to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) in a bid to come to an agreement over the return of the remains without continuing legal proceedings initiated by the community group.

A three-day hearing in the High Court from March 7 is due to decide whether an interim ban on further testing of the remains should be made permanent.

Mediation would take place through an independent body.

Museum director Michael Dixon described the dispute as an “enormously complicated issue”.

“We have strived throughout to balance two very different opinions of what is the right thing to do,” Dr Dixon said in a statement.

“On the one hand, returning the remains to the country of origin, on the other, using this invaluable and unique resource for scientific research.”

The bodies were taken from graves in Tasmania by colonists in the 1800s and eventually donated to the museum.

The museum has agreed to return the remains, but not before scientists take samples by drilling into bones and skulls, and extracting teeth.

The TAC has won an injunction preventing the museum from carrying out any further tests until the court application on making the ban permanent is decided.

“The museum’s founding principle is the generation of knowledge to promote the discovery and understanding of the natural world for the benefit of humanity,” Dr Dixon said.

“For this reason we have stood by our decision to return the remains following a short period of data collection.”


The Australian

UK museum ‘fighting dirty’ on remains
* February 28, 2007

A BRITISH museum that wants to test the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aborigines has been accused of “fighting dirty” by an indigenous leader.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) says the British Natural History Museum is trying to quash a previous Tasmanian Supreme Court direction giving the TAC custody of the remains.

A three-day hearing in the British High Court from March 7 will decide whether an interim ban on further testing should be made permanent.

“We suspect the museum is avoiding scrutiny of its actions and is using its unlimited resources to buy a victory for science over morality,” TAC legal director Michael Mansell said.

“Scientists in London say mankind can benefit from the results of pulling teeth from the skulls of Aborigines, chiselling the bones, grinding parts of the remains, dismantling skeletons, making calibrations of the size of skulls, drilling into bone, placing parts of the dead in chemical solutions, and taking X-rays and photographs.

“The scientists wash their hands of the murders and grave robbing that brought the Aboriginal dead being in their care. To the scientists these are just bones, not people.”


The Australian

Brough welcomes bones mediation
* Matthew Denholm
* March 02, 2007

THE Australian Government may join an attempted mediation between Aborigines and a leading British museum over tests on indigenous remains.
London’s Natural History Museum has offered to try mediation in the dispute over its plans to conduct DNA and other tests on the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aborigines.

Yesterday, Aboriginal representatives responded to the offer with caution and surprise, while federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough flagged a role for the commonwealth.

“The mediation move is very welcome. As I have said all along, avoiding litigation is the best way to resolve the issue,” Mr Brough told The Australian. “The Australian Government will do whatever is necessary to help facilitate a quick settlement. If that means being a party to the mediation, we’d participate.”

The NHM’s mediation offer follows concerns a looming hearing on the matter before the High Court in Britain could become a lawyers’ banquet.

After a protracted debate, the NHM late last year agreed to hand back the remains of 17 Aborigines “donated” to British museums, mostly in the 19th century. However, the NHM is insisting on first completing a range of “data collection” from the bones and teeth, ranging from CT scans to drilling into skulls and removing fragments for DNA and other analysis.

Action in the High Court, taken by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre but funded andjoined by the Australian Government, aims to secure the return of the remains before further tests.

Clyde Mansell, who represented Tasmanian Aborigines on a recent delegation to London aimed at stopping the tests, said the museum’s lawyers had told him they were not interested in mediation. “So this (offer) is something out of the blue,” Mr Mansell told ABC radio.

If mediation fails, the issue is scheduled for a three-day hearing starting on March 7. Up to seven parties are expected to join proceedings, with legal fees tipped by lawyers involved in the case to reach up to $1 million.

The TAC has argued the tests amount to a “degrading” of their culture by “mad scientists” and that the spirits of their forebears may be affected.

However, some Aborigines have said the hundreds of thousands of dollars likely to be spent by taxpayers on the High Court case could be better spent on Aboriginal programs.

Several indigenous leaders, including national ALP president Warren Mundine, have also suggested that disgust at 19th-century grave-robbing must be balanced against benefits from scientific tests on the remains.

NHM director Michael Dixon said the offer of mediation was made in the hope of avoiding further legal action. “We have strived throughout to balance two very different opinions of what is the right thing to do – on the one hand returning the remains to the country of origin; on the other using this invaluable and unique resource for scientific research,” Dr Dixon said.

A museum report on the remains also cites their possible use in developing a DNA test to establish Aboriginal descent.

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