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First step taken

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Since the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly, indigenous leaders and other supporters have focused on strategies to turn the declaration into effective law.

The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly on Sept. 13, 2007, in a historic vote by an overwhelming majority – 143 member states voted in favor, 11 abstained and Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States voted against the declaration.

While it is not yet binding in law, the declaration expresses the highest moral standard for the treatment of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous peoples, written as it is in a human rights framework that will guide government policies for indigenous communities and promote the participation of indigenous peoples in the political processes and decisions that affect them.

The first substantial step in the effort to make the declaration law was taken on Dec. 13 when the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution to establish the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The expert mechanism will report directly to the council as a subsidiary body that will “assist the Human Rights Council in the implementation of its mandate” to promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and to address human rights violations, including systemic or institutionalized human rights violations.

The establishment of the Expert Mechanism was lauded by U.S. indigenous leaders as a crucial tool to move the declaration forward.

“We’re really excited about the expert mechanism. This new mechanism will provide us with the opportunity to propose ways for the council, U.N. member states and the U.N. system as a whole to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said Andrea Carmen, Yaqui and the executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, a nongovernmental organization that works for the recognition and protection of indigenous rights.

From Dec. 16 to 18, 2007 in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, indigenous leaders from Ecuador and elsewhere met for the “International Conference: Formulation and Implementation of the Strategic Plan” for the application of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE in Spanish), the Native-based School of Government and Public Policy, the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany and the Esquel Foundation, the conference addressed the issue through five “work tables”: democracy, politics and autonomies; territories and natural resources; administration of justice; economics and development; and identity, culture and patrimony, which included intellectual, spiritual and cultural aspects.

On April 8, Canada’s 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 declaration was endorsed by 148 - 113 in a vote divided exclusively along party lines, with the Conservative Party providing all of the nay votes. The Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper – a close ally of President George W. Bush – claimed following the parliamentary vote that the declaration is not applicable in Canada.

By contrast, on April 15 Maine’s General Assembly passed a joint resolution, co-sponsored by Donna Loring and Donald Soctomah, the legislative representatives of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes, respectively, endorsing the declaration.

The resolution reiterates the declaration’s rights protections for indigenous peoples, including “their rights that pertain to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues,” including the right to economic development.

The National Congress of American Indians added its considerable clout to the effort at its annual meeting in October by passing a resolution supporting the declaration and urging its endorsement by state governments and Congress.

The NCAI promises to send its resolution “to all state governors and legislators for support through their legislature for memorial resolutions to the Congress of the United States; and. ... the NCAI calls upon the United States to sign the declaration.”

Robert Tim Coulter, one of the original authors of the declaration and executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont., and Washington, D.C., said the declaration is “the most significant development in international human rights in decades. Tribes must work harder than ever to pressure the U.S. to respect these rights.”