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Endorsing their rights

Canadian Parliament passes UN Declaration resolution

OTTAWA - The Canadian Parliament has endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by a majority vote - an action that was lauded by indigenous peoples; organizations and human rights groups across the continent.

On April 8, the House of Commons passed a resolution to endorse the declaration as adopted by the U.N. General Assembly and called on the government of Canada to ''fully implement the standards contained therein.''

''The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a road map for the reconciliation of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world,'' said Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, in a release. ''Aboriginal peoples in Canada welcome the commitment of the majority of Parliamentarians to work with us to implement urgently needed human rights standards.''

The declaration was endorsed by 148 - 113 in a vote divided exclusively along party lines, with the Conservative Party providing all of the nay votes, said Craig Benjamin, campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples for Amnesty International Canada.

''The three opposition parties - the Liberals, the New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois - brought forth the motion in direct response to requests made to them by national aboriginal organizations,'' Benjamin said.

The international human rights organization worked for the declaration's endorsement in partnership with the Assembly of First Nations, Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers), First Nations Summit, International Organization of Indigenous Resource Development, Inuit Circumpolar Council (Canada), Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, and the Native Women's Association of Canada.

The declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly Sept. 13, 2007, in a historic vote by an overwhelming 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 can claim large areas of land - were the only four states that voted no. Canada is the first of the four to move forward with endorsement.

The declaration affirms minimum human rights standards necessary for the ''survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.'' 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 also 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.

The Conservative Party government of Stephen Harper - a close ally of President George Bush - has claimed following the parliamentary vote that the declaration is not applicable in Canada. This claim has no legal basis and is unprecedented in Canada's foreign and domestic policy, Benjamin said.

''Given that the declaration is universally applicable to all states in the world from the time of its adoption by the U.N. General Assembly, it's not necessary for individual states to sign on or ratify the declaration as they would with a treaty or convention; but what the Parliament's endorsement has done is it refutes quite strongly the continued opposition to the declaration that has come from the minority government of Stephen Harper and it indicates that while that particular party remains opposed, Parliament as a whole is in support of the declaration,'' Benjamin said.

''The rights affirmed in the declaration are vital to our lives as indigenous peoples and to the generations still to come,'' said Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, in a release. ''We deeply appreciate the fact that the majority of members of Parliament were prepared to do the right thing and endorse the declaration.''

During the House of Commons debate over the resolution, Conservative government spokesmen claimed that the declaration would undo centuries of Canadian treaties with indigenous peoples.

''This government's latest arguments against the declaration show just how ridiculous their position has become,'' said Chief Wilton Littlechild, international chief for Treaty Six, in a release. ''The U.N. declaration explicitly states that treaties and other agreements with indigenous peoples are to be honored and respected.''

The Harper government's arguments are belied by briefing notes from legal advisers to the departments of Foreign Affairs, Indian Affairs and National Defense to government ministers. Amnesty International obtained the documents through an Access Information (Canada's Freedom of Information law) request.

''What we got back was incredibly censored, but we did find out that just before the government took its position to oppose the declaration when it came before the U.N. Human Rights Council, the legal advisers had recommended that Canada endorse the U.N. declaration and support its adoption. These are the people whose job is to look out for what the government defines as its self-interest! They seek to advance the state interest quite often at the expense of aboriginal people, so if they had looked at the declaration and said this in some way threatens or impacts treaties and land claims and policies ... but they didn't say that,'' Benjamin said.

The night before the vote, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a well-known indigenous rights advocate and the chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, wrote an encouraging note to the members of Parliament.

Implementation of the declaration would forward reconciliation efforts between the government and the indigenous peoples, and facilitate the development of plans and strategies on how to redress historical and present injustices, she said.

''It provides a good impetus for governments to plan jointly with indigenous peoples on how peace, security, human rights and sustainable development can be achieved in indigenous peoples' territories. An endorsement of the adoption of the declaration will not only favor the indigenous peoples of Canada but also the indigenous peoples in countries where Canadian aid is provided.''