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Declaration, human rights and equality

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On Sept. 13, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with a vote of 143 in favor, 4 against and 11 abstentions. Since then, one of the negative votes, Australia, has indicated that it now favors adoption of the declaration. The powers of the U.N. General Assembly are advisory; the assembly can recommend to nation-states and the international community adoption and adherence to agreements and declarations. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can be legally adopted and observed by nation-states, and some have already indicated they will observe the recommendations and guidelines set forth there.

The declaration is the result of more than 25 years of discussion and negotiation among indigenous peoples, nation-states and U.N. officials. Many American Indians were early and constant players in the negotiations and revisions that worked their way through the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. We owe a great debt to all those who worked for many years crafting and developing support and consensus for passage of the declaration. It should also be said that the nation-states of the world overwhelmingly voted in favor of the declaration, which is an affirmation and recognition of indigenous rights. The international community now recognizes and upholds indigenous rights for all nations and indigenous peoples.

The acceptance of the declaration by the nations of the world is a significant world historical event, and a major step toward greater inclusiveness for the international and U.N. human rights movement. All indigenous peoples, individuals and governments should read and use the principles of the declaration as guidelines in their everyday activities and relations between indigenous and non-Indians, governments and communities. A copy of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can be downloaded from

The philosophical underpinnings of the declaration reflect the universal human rights emphasis of the international community and United Nations, and the emphasis on legal and civil equality upheld by many nation-states. As a strategy of negotiation and political process, the indigenous peoples gravitated toward the viewpoints of the universal human rights movement. In 1948, most nation-states agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, providing freedoms and protections from discrimination, rights to education, and recognizing that all human beings have fundamental rights and freedoms. For example, Article 1 states, ''All human beings are born equal and free in dignity and rights.''

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is not premised on an indigenous interpretation of the world where the rights of indigenous peoples are created through their own traditions, laws and creation stories. The arguments that indigenous peoples and rights to self-government that predate the formation of nation-states, and that indigenous peoples are not parties to most constitutions of nation-states, are not the premises of the declaration. Rather, the declaration derives its grounding in the current universal human rights philosophy. This is a practical strategy in the sense that most nation-states have already agreed to the universal human rights declaration, and therefore extending human rights to indigenous peoples is not such a large leap from current international agreements.

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The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, however, extends human rights beyond individual rights and includes collective or group rights of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples have collective rights to land, political autonomy, retention of culture and community organization. Furthermore, the declaration recognizes there may be many cultural interpretations by different indigenous peoples of land ownership, political autonomy, and cultural rights and practices. The framing of the declaration is often general and designed to be used by indigenous peoples in the many cultural, political and economic settings that are found around the world. The rights outlined in the declaration are a guideline to rights, but must be interpreted and negotiated in each nation-state and indigenous community setting.

The indigenous negotiators were also influenced by the nation-states of Mexico, and Latin and South America, where laws already give equal rights to all citizens, including indigenous citizens. Many nation-states provide equal rights to all citizens, and do not provide ''special'' rights or recognition of indigenous peoples. Many indigenous people believe this strategy avoids recognizing indigenous peoples, their governments, cultures and land rights.

In the United States, the termination policies of the 1940s and '50s was aimed at offering full U.S. citizenship to American Indians, and discourage them from continuing in what President Truman considered the second-class citizenship of trust dependency. Many American Indian communities strongly resisted termination policy and the granting of full U.S. citizenship it carried with it, but preferred to uphold their own communities, governments and ways of life.

Throughout the world, indigenous peoples struggle in analogous ways to uphold their own communities, cultures and ways of government, rather than accepting full citizenship without recognition of indigenous ways of life. In the declaration, indigenous peoples will have the right to maintain culture, self-determination, community and land in the same ways that other national citizens can. The nation-states now pledge to recognize that indigenous peoples will have different cultural, community and political ways of understanding land, resources and identity. The declaration also premises that indigenous peoples will not establish rival or separatist nation-states that might upset the stability of contemporary nation-states. Rather, indigenous peoples will negotiate cultural and political autonomy from within the legal and political framework of their host nation-state.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples moves the premises of indigenous rights away from visions of cultural and political autonomy from time immemorial toward inclusion in the universal human rights movement. This strategy facilitated passage of the declaration, and will facilitate international implementation and support. However, not only will nation-states be held to universal human rights standards, but so will indigenous governments and communities. This is a sign of full entry into the world human rights movements, but it confers not only protections, but obligations to uphold human rights within indigenous communities, and to observe international human rights standards for all peoples, including non-Indians living in Indian territory.