2007 Victory: Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Adopted

On Sept. 13, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, with 143 member states voting for it and 11 abstaining. Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand – four countries with sizeable indigenous populations with legitimate claims to large land masses – voted against the adoption.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, hailed the declaration’s passage in prepared comments after the vote.

“The 13th of September 2007 will be remembered as an international human rights day for the Indigenous Peoples of the world, a day that the United Nations and its Member States, together with Indigenous Peoples, reconciled with past painful histories and decided to march into the future on the path of human rights,” she said.

The declaration is a nonbinding document that formally establishes the individual and collective rights of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples, advocates for the protection and enhancement of their cultural identities and right to self-government, and underlines their right to control the lands and territories they have traditionally owned or used as well as their right to restitution for lands that have been taken from them. The full document is available here.

While the declaration is not legally binding, the hope and expectation is that it will become a convention with the force of international law.

It is also hoped that the moral weight of the document, which is grounded in the ongoing struggles of indigenous peoples and their just cause, will sway nations to embrace its provisions.

However, according to an Amnesty International report titled Canada and the International Protection of Human Rights: An Erosion of Leadership? after the declaration was adopted “Canada has gone on to claim – without any basis in international law – that states that voted against the Declaration should be exempt from the standard that it has set.”

The proposition that governments can opt out by simply voting against a declaration “dramatically undercuts the integrity of the international human rights system. Every setback has wider impacts as well,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty Canada. “Millions of people around the world living the daily reality of relentless abuses of their human rights need to hear the full force of Canada’s voice on the world stage. Canada can and must do better.”

By contrast, www.nativobserver.org reported on Bolivia’s adoption of the declaration as national law. Bolivia is the first country in the world to do so.

President Evo Morales addressed the crowds of cheering indigenous Bolivians who had come to celebrate the event.

“From the passage of this declaration,” Morales said, “I feel that the indigenous movement has gone from one of resistance to one of power, but not sectarian, personal, individual or regional power; but to create a power that, at its core, is a way of living in a community … it is the power of resolving problems equally for all, not only in Bolivia but in the entire world.”