A United Nations (UN) agency has rectified a longstanding historical inaccuracy that had claimed Tasmanian Aboriginal people to be extinct for more than four decades.
The erroneous statement was discovered in a document related to the nomination process for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area declaration in 1982.
The document, which carried the inaccurate claim that “Tasmanians are now an extinct race of humans,” has finally been removed.
The flawed reference came to light during the technical evaluation of the temperate wilderness area by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a part of the process to secure its place on the World Heritage List.
The IUCN report also suggested the thylacine’s survival, a creature believed to have vanished in 1936.
The reference to the extinction of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and the potential existence of the thylacine were tied to the uniqueness of the wilderness area.
In May, it was reported by The Australian that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had initially declined to remove the inaccurate reference.
However, UNESCO later clarified that it had not been approached regarding the matter and promptly removed the document from its World Heritage website upon being informed of the issue.
A spokesperson from UNESCO confirmed that the document had been removed for revision by IUCN, the advisory body responsible for producing the document in 1982.
UNESCO emphasised its commitment to recognising and respecting Indigenous populations in the context of protecting world heritage sites.
The organisation acknowledged that it had agreed with IUCN to amend the 1982 report in order to incorporate scientific data collected since then, which validates the ongoing existence of Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
The inaccuracy in the document has been seen as a reflection of the historical mistreatment of Aboriginal people.
Rodney Dillon, a Palawa elder and the chair of Tasmania’s Aboriginal Heritage Council, expressed his people’s sadness and hurt due to this misrepresentation.
Dillon criticised the need for more sensitivity displayed by organisations like the UN and questioned how such institutions can effectively represent Indigenous communities.
“Our people feel the sadness, the hurt. It’s pretty typical of people in these positions … they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years,” he told Guardian Australia.
Michael Mansell, chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, stressed the need for the original inscription to be revised to acknowledge the insult and correct the historical record.
In May, he asserted in The Australian’s report that “World Heritage listing needs to be overhauled to acknowledge that the 1.5 million-hectare area is substantially World-Heritage listed because of its Aboriginal cultural values.”
ALCT manager Rebecca Digney told ABC the 1982 document was “dehumanising” and an example of “racist rhetoric” that exists today, though news of UNESCO’s amendment was welcomed.
“Denying somebody’s existence is probably the cruellest thing you can do to a class of people, particularly a class of people who are the survivors of genocide,” she said.
Ms Digney added Indigenous Tasmanians have been fighting the myth of extinction since the death of Truganini in 1876.
Truganini was an Aboriginal Tasmanian woman documented as one of the last native speakers of the Tasmanian languages and solely of Aboriginal Tasmanian descent.
“The quickest way to undermine Aboriginal people, particularly in Tasmania, is to tell them that they don’t exist,” she said.
“It silences their voices on a political and social level. It denies them their claims on any sort of legal or economic level.”
Tanya Plibersek, the federal environmental minister, expressed her shock at the initial claim of Tasmanian Aboriginal extinction and welcomed UNESCO’s corrective action.
“Generations of Australians were taught the wrong thing at school. They were taught a history that isn’t true,” she told the ABC.
The corrected version of the UNESCO statement, known as the Retrospective Statement of Outstanding Universal Value for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, is expected to be adopted in September.