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Garma, 70 years since the Geneva Conventions + The Power of Vulnerability

8 August 2019

Hi everyone,

Every year, Garma Festival is celebrated in Northeast Arnhem Land. In its 21st year, the Garma gathering brings together business leaders, international political leaders, intellectuals, academics and journalists to discuss the most pressing issues facing Australia.

I’ve asked Charles Burkitt (Chair of Australian Red Cross, Northern Territory) to share his experience and thoughts about Garma this year.

Garma – Pathways to our Future

Left: Gumatj dancers with Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Hon Ken Wyatt AM, MP. Right: Pristine coastline of Nhulunbuy (Northeast Arnhem Land)

By Charles Burkitt

Last week I had the opportunity to spend four days in Northeast Arnhem Land for Garma, one of the most significantly important Indigenous cultural events held annually in Australia. This year’s theme was “Pathways to our Future”.

It is a celebration of the cultural, artistic and ceremonial traditions of the ‘Yolngu’ (the peoples of the northeast Arnhem Land region). The event is held by the Yothu Yindi Foundation to promote Yolngu cultural development with community leaders and persons of authority from five regional clan groups: Gumatj, Rirratjingu, Djapu, Galpu and Wangurri.  

The leadership and innovative program development of the Yothu Yindi Foundation are significant positive forces supporting Indigenous cultural maintenance, not only in Northeast Arnhem Land, but throughout the country and internationally.

A central principle of the Foundation’s vision is the creation of economic opportunities for Yolngu and other Indigenous Australians that can be sustained over the long term – opportunities that will develop through the use of artistic and cultural practices and, importantly, through Yolngu ownership, drive and direction. (Note: Yothu + Yindi = child + mother = balance). Specifically, the Yothu Yindi Foundation vision is:

“For Yolngu and other Indigenous Australians to have the same level of wellbeing and life opportunities and choices as non-Indigenous Australians."

The Foundation has identified three primary objectives to drive the achievement of its vision of financially, physically and culturally sustainable Indigenous Australians, each vital for social cohesion, cultural identity, community development and maximised economic development. These objectives are to:

  • provide contemporary environments and programs to practice, preserve, maintain and present traditional knowledge systems, cultural traditions and cultural practices (such as traditional dance (bunggul), song (manikay), art (miny’tji) and ceremony);
  • develop economic opportunities for Yolngu through education, training, employment, enterprise and personal and community development, including community leadership development; and to
  • facilitate the sharing of knowledge and culture, thereby fostering a greater understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians

The Yolngu people have lived in this region for at least fifty thousand years and Garma presents the extremely rare opportunity for Balanda (non-Yolngu people) to inhabit an exclusive area of Gumajt land simultaneously, albeit for a very brief period. For a period of up to four days, participants shared a unique experience of being deeply immersed in the Yolngu culture.

Key components of the Garma festival include:

The Key Forum – this is now a nationally significant gathering discussing a rolling set of themes. These themes each year relate to activities currently topical at a national level and are endorsed by the Yothu Yindi Foundation’s Directors and key advisers, and produces real and practical results. The Garma Lecture is the leading discussion that investigates issues relevant to the nation, on point and topical at the time Garma is held. One of the most beneficial aspects of this forum, as confronting and sensitive as it can potentially be, is that it provides the chance to hear the unfiltered voice of Indigenous Australia.

The Garma Youth Forum - there is an incredible movement amongst our youth today, proud and capable and willing to absorb, understand and develop avenues to improve the state of Indigenous disadvantage. The Youth Forum is therefore a mini-Garma in itself jam packed with workshops for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students from across the nation building confidence and knowledge within our future leaders of tomorrow. The Youth Forum is a great opportunity to witness the impressive leadership capacity of the next generation. Have a read of the Imagination Declaration, a powerful statement that was presented on behalf of the Garma Youth Forum.

Evening Bunggul Dance - Traditional ceremonial dance is performed each day of Garma from 4pm until sunset. In these highly significant traditional ceremonies, men, women and children alongside their families and clan groups perform Australia’s original dance, unique to the Northeast Arnhem Land. The senior holders of the Yolngu song lines share with Garma participants their stories of manikay (song) overlayed with the rhythm of the clap stick. The bunggul is a major attraction of Garma, and quite simply put – it is breathtaking.

My personal experience and interpretation of this year’s theme “Pathways to our Future” is a simple but powerful message of looking up and forward together, to a future that is there for all of us with mutual recognition and most importantly, BALANCE (Yothu Yindu).

70 years since the Geneva Conventions

After the Second World War, the laws of war that existed for over 150 years were updated and agreed by all countries of the world, becoming the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and signalling the beginning of contemporary international humanitarian law (IHL). These laws limit how wars can be fought and help, among other things, to protect civilians, medical personnel and prisoners of war. They prohibit torture and limit the means and methods of warfare. They give the Red Cross emblem – which means ‘don’t shoot’ – its protective power.

It’s been 70 years since the adoption of the Four Geneva Conventions. Seven decades of ensuring that a wounded person is allowed through a checkpoint. Seven decades of protecting civilians, women and children. Seven decades of preserving the core of common humanity in the midst of conflict. We also remember that even if they are universally ratified, these seven decades have demonstrated that they are not universally respected, often leading to devastating and unacceptable humanitarian consequences. Nevertheless, the laws remain as relevant as ever and we must advocate for them to be upheld and respected in order to limit the suffering of war.

I encourage you to take part in the events hosted by our IHL Advisory Committees across the country. If you’re in Melbourne on 20 August, you can join me and hear experts discuss the Geneva Conventions at the University of Melbourne. You can also listen to this podcast where Helen Durham (Director of International Law and Policy, ICRC) discussed how relevant the Geneva Conventions are, 70 years in.

In Peter Maurer’s (ICRC President) words:

“Let us remember that the spirit of the Conventions – to uphold human dignity even in the midst of war – is as important now as it was then. Let us always remember that the Conventions are law – but somehow transcend law – as what they require is not only legal but just and right. Let all of us do what we can to ensure that this spirit prevails.”

The Power of Vulnerability

Lastly, I want to share this TED talk by Brené Brown on 'The Power of Vulnerability'. It is one of the most watched videos of all time. This resonates with me at the moment as I read your amazing feedback and suggestions, think through some tough choices we need to make and explore the "right course" for success beyond 2020. I encourage you to watch the video – there are great takeaways from Brown who talks about the many barriers to bravery at work. This includes a fear of tough conversations, ignoring fears and feelings, getting stuck in setbacks, seeking to solve problems through immediate action, not working towards inclusivity, diversity and equity, and a culture of shame and blame.

Chat to you next week.