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An Olympic opportunity for Declaration

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Facing international and internal pressure, the Canadian Parliament on April 8 voted to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous peoples' organizations and human rights groups celebrated the decision, calling it a step toward reconciliation for First Nations peoples, who continue to suffer the highest rates of suicide, abuse, imprisonment, and poverty. The government, however, remains firm in its opposition.

''Canada's reputation as a human rights advocate continues to suffer as a result of its ongoing opposition to the Declaration,'' said Tl'azt'en Nation Grand Chief Edward John, member of the First Nations Summit. ''Despite the government's opposition, this vote ... is an important step in the implementation of the Declaration,'' he said in an April 9 news release. Canada was one of only four states to oppose the declaration when it was adopted by an overwhelming majority of U.N. member states Sept. 13, 2007.

Strategies urging each nation to reconsider its stance and encourage other opposing nations to follow suit in a domino effect seem to be working. Australia's new national leadership in February issued an apology to the ''Stolen Generation'' as its first order of business and is now considering reversing its opposition to the declaration.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith acknowledged the potential for damage to the opposing nations' image in the world. ''Australia's always wanted to be a good international citizen and I think this has enhanced our credentials and reputation,'' he said after the apology. On hearing this news out of Australia, First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine expressed hope. ''I am optimistic that the Canadian government will, like the Australian government, see the error of its ways and reverse its position on the U.N. declaration.'' Today, there is forward movement within two of the four opposing nations.

At a time when world citizens are loudly protesting China's policies against the backdrop of its national coming-out party, the Beijing Olympic Games, it deserves mention that the United States remains opposed to the declaration's minimum human rights standards for indigenous peoples. Details emerge almost daily of possible human rights violations by the U.S government during the Iraq War and the broader war on terror. The growing perception that the U.S. lacks regard for international cooperation and human rights at home and abroad continues to undermine its credibility in the world community. Standing beside China as it attempts to portray itself as a modern nation will test both nations' commitment to upholding human rights standards.

This detail is sure to come to light during the run-up to the summer games, as China is being roundly criticized for its reluctance to use political capital to end genocide in Darfur. Tibetan protests are also playing a role, pulling the mask off China's carefully crafted message of unity, as American Indian organizations did during the civil rights movement.

Amid the controversy following the Olympic torch as it makes its way to Beijing, there is plenty of goodwill and ample media attention to encourage citizens to carry the message of indigenous rights. The world's focus is already on human rights, justice, and the Olympic tradition of fellowship. Athletes from all over the world gather to share common goals, while engaging in cultural exchange. ''I came to the conclusion after that that people throughout the world are the same,'' said a swimmer on the 1980 U.S. team. In the Olympic environment, peace in the world seems more possible than ever. At a moment when nations are inextricably connected by trade, it is important to relate to others in the world as human beings, part of the same family, to localize global obstacles which prevent the prosperity and survival of indigenous peoples.

The moral high road is claimed by those U.N. member states committed to implementing the rights affirmed in the declaration. The U.S. and China are partners in a global economy; it is unlikely that human rights considerations will trump economic interests ''in world leaders' calculations,'' as a professor at Indiana University puts it. But consumers have influence in this economic equation. An Olympic boycott may not be as effective as seizing the opportunity to spread the peoples' message during a time of intense media attention.