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Carmen: Time to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

On April 20, at the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice announced that the United States will conduct a “formal review” of its position in opposition to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 13, 2007 when 144 countries voted in favor, 11 abstained, and four countries voted against it – the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Since then, all of the four countries that voted “no” have either reversed their positions or have initiated a process towards doing so.

The Declaration was developed over a 30-year process at the United Nations with the participation of thousands of indigenous peoples, nations, tribal governments and organizations from the United States and around the world, as well as a number of independent experts.

It recognizes and affirms a wide range of rights, including self-determination, land and natural resources, cultural rights and sacred sites protection, subsistence, treaty rights, health and social services, non-discrimination, environmental protection, education, language, and many others which indigenous peoples identified as essential to their dignity, survival and well-being.

During its review, the U.S. State Department will consult with various branches of the U.S. government. It will also consult and seek input from indigenous nations, tribes and organizations, as well as other interested parties including non-governmental organizations and human rights organizations.

The State Department’s face-to-face consultations with tribal nations and NGO’s began in June 2010, and it requested written submissions by July 15. Here are some points that may be helpful for those planning to have input into this process:

  • In her April 20 statement, Rice recognized the call by tribal leaders for the U.S. to re-examine its position on the declaration as “an important recommendation that directly complements our commitment to work together with the international community on the many challenges that indigenous peoples face."

  • The rights in the UNDRIP are consistent with a range of international human rights instruments that the United States has already ratified. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and more than 400 nation-to-nation treaties with indigenous nations.

  • Many of the rights in the UNDRIP are already being implemented in a number of U.S. federal laws, policies and executive orders.

  • Human rights and dignity are inherent and inalienable according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established in 1948. The UNDRIP defines and elaborates the inherent rights of indigenous peoples.

  • The UNDRIP affirms a wide range of rights which are directly relevant to the issues of greatest concern to Indian tribes, nations and communities in the United States today, and we encourage you to give examples from your nation and region.

  • The rights recognized in the UNDRIP “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world,” according to Article 43 of the Declaration.

  • The preamble of the Declaration says “Recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples in this Declaration will enhance cooperative and harmonious relations between the State (nations) and Indigenous Peoples.” The UNDRIP also provides a framework for problem-solving and conflict resolution.

  • The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended in 2008 that the United States use the declaration “as a guide to interpret the state party’s obligations under the convention relating to indigenous peoples.”

  • Full recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples is an essential component of a just and honorable U.S. human rights policy both at home and in the international arena.

  • It will be very important for the U.S. government, at the end of its review process, to state its unqualified endorsement and support for the UNDRIP, and present specific plans for its implementation.

In summary, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was developed over many years with the participation of thousands of indigenous peoples to be an integrated and inter-related human rights doctrine. It reflects the concerns and input of both indigenous peoples and countries. It is consistent with human rights principles as contained in international laws and norms, as well as the U.S. Constitution.

We call upon the U.S. government to endorse the U.N. Declaration in its entirety, without qualifications or exceptions, and to work in full partnership with indigenous peoples, tribal governments and nations to ensure its implementation.

Andrea Carmen, Yaqui Nation, is the executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council which was involved in negotiations on the U.N. Declaration for nearly three decades.