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Canadian government isolated as Declaration moves ahead

TORONTO – A new report released on the eve of the second anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples shows that it is increasingly honored, celebrated and implemented around the world, while Canada continues to balk at embracing its human rights principles.

After more than two decades of negotiation and debate, the Declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly Sept.13, 2007, in a historic vote by a majority of 143 states in favor to four against, with 11 abstentions.

Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand – all countries whose sizeable indigenous populations claim large areas of land – were the only four countries that voted no.

Australia has since reversed its decision, and New Zealand and the U.S. have indicated that they are reviewing their positions.

The new report was written by Paul Joffe, a Montreal lawyer and expert on international human rights. Joffe worked in Canada and internationally with indigenous peoples and human rights organizations on indigenous issues during the 20 years of drafting the Declaration. He is also involved in the ongoing standard setting process at the Organization of American States in preparing the Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

While the U.N. Declaration makes a universal and broad statement of rights, the American Declaration will address the particular needs of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

The U.N. Declaration affirms minimum human rights standards necessary for the “survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world,” who number some 370 million in more than 70 countries. These include the right of self-determination, protections from discrimination and genocide, and recognition of rights to lands, territories and resources that are essential to the identity, health and livelihood of indigenous peoples. The Declaration explicitly requires that all provisions are to be balanced with other rights protections and interpreted in accordance with principles of justice, democracy, non-discrimination, good governance and respect for the human rights of all.

Although Canada played an active role in building international support for the human rights instrument, Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority government continues to denounce the Declaration as “unworkable.” Harper, who was a close ally of former U.S. President George Bush, maintains this position, despite a resolution by the Canadian parliament in April 2008 calling on the executive branch to endorse it and “fully implement the standards contained therein.”

Joffe’s report was supported and endorsed in a joint press release by the Assembly of First Nations, Amnesty International Canada, Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers), Chiefs of Ontario, Ermineskin Cree Nation, First Nations Summit, Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee), Louis Bull Cree Nation, International Organization of Indigenous Resource Development, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Inuit Circumpolar Council (Canada), Montana Cree Nation, Native Women’s Association of Canada, Quebec Native Women, Samson Cree Nation, and World Federalist Movement – Canada. The full report is posted at the Friends Web site.

The report shows that in the two years since the adoption of the Declaration, governments, U.N, agencies, regional and national courts, and human rights bodies have increasingly turned to it for guidance in implementing measures to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

“These major advances highlight the unreasonableness of Canada’s position on the Declaration,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. “The Harper government has said that the U.N. Declaration is unworkable. Clearly, the international community and most countries strongly disagree.”

The report’s findings include:

• While Canada opposes the Declaration, implementation is taking place domestically with the leadership of indigenous peoples and in partnership with civil society.

The Declaration is becoming an integral part of human rights education and is used in presentations and materials shared across the country. Indigenous peoples are emphasizing the Declaration’s standards in discourse with government and corporations. Academic institutions are including it in curricula, and trade unions are educating members.

• The Declaration doesn’t create new rights; it elaborates on indigenous peoples’ inherent rights, which throughout history have not been respected.

• Greenland recently negotiated with Denmark significantly enhanced self-government, which its prime minister described “as a de facto implementation of the Declaration and. ... hopefully an inspiration to others.”

• The Supreme Court of Belize relied in part on the Declaration in an October 2007 case that affirmed the land and resource rights of the Maya people.

• The Inter-American Court of Human Rights used the Declaration and other legal standards in its November 2007 ruling on the land rights of the Saramaka people in Suriname.

Joffe’s report also addresses the Canadian government’s “erroneous” claim that its vote against the Declaration means it does not apply in Canada.

“This appears to be the first time that Canada has vigorously opposed a human rights instrument adopted by the General Assembly. In its December 2007 report, Amnesty International cautions that Canada’s position ‘attempts to set a very dangerous precedent for U.N. human rights protection,’” Joffee said.

“The proposition that governments can opt out. … by simply voting against a declaration, resolution or other similar document, even when an overwhelming majority of states have supported the new standards, dramatically undercuts the integrity of the international human rights system,” reads the Amnesty report. “It is impossible to recall a similar example of Canada taking such a harmful position on the basic principles of global human rights protection.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said the Declaration is “the best available tool to address the longstanding human rights violations facing indigenous peoples worldwide.”

He called on the Canadian government “to follow the example of other governments and institutions around the world and support its implementation.”