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Implementation of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples





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We celebrate on Sept. 13 the first anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The adoption of the Declaration by the United Nations, with an overwhelming vote of support from the member states, represents a significant milestone in the promotion and protection of universal human rights.

The adoption of this Declaration occurred at a critical time in the new millennium when the role and effectiveness of the United Nations was under intense scrutiny.

For those of us who worked in the final negotiations for the adoption of the Declaration we were becoming acutely aware that the era of developing new standards was drawing to a close.

The last two years of negotiations were uncertain and stressful for all parties, but the outcome was worth the effort.

The final adoption of the Declaration was an outstanding success, and the collection of votes in the General Assembly was a clear signal to governments.

The signal was that more than two decades of intense international examination of Indigenous issues had come to an important and meaningful conclusion.

That is, it is time for governments to respond, to show action at the national level, to form effective partnerships with the Indigenous Peoples for good government and achievement of true equality.

It is pleasing to report that during the past year there has been rapid growth in the awareness of the Declaration and the expectation that change must occur.

Indigenous peoples everywhere are citing the Declaration as a standard to be met.

The rights contained in the Declaration are being used by Indigenous peoples as benchmarks for outcomes.

Many governments are also responding in a positive way.

In Latin America in particular we can see governments are taking steps to incorporate the standards into laws and are distributing copies of the Declaration to the Indigenous communities.

It is more likely than not, that discussions between Indigenous peoples and governments anywhere around the world are founded upon the Declaration.

National courts are making interpretations on Indigenous peoples issues, guided by the Declaration.

The implementation of the Declaration must continue to roll out, and governments must be alongside Indigenous peoples in that process.

It is important to remind ourselves the Declaration is not just a compilation of articles to be selected and considered as separate items in isolation.

The Declaration is first and foremost a comprehensive statement requiring a genuine partnership between governments and Indigenous peoples to foster the exercise of self-determination.

Only in this context of partnership will real gains be made and historical problems solved.

It is important to realize that the implementation of the Declaration does not require any new international human rights treaties.

The rights contained in the Declaration are already found in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), an instrument that is now celebrating its 60th year in international operations.

At the time of adoption in 1948, there was controversy and uncertainty about the human rights regime and the authority of the UDHR, but now we see there is no longer any controversy or doubt about the UDHR and its strong foundation for the subsequent human rights conventions or treaties.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples elaborates rights that are enshrined in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

This international treaty already addresses self-determination and free, prior and informed consent, under provisions of non-discrimination.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples elaborates rights that are already recognized in the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR).

We are already well aware that the right of self-determination appears in the first articles of these two covenants, but there is much more relevance than that issue alone.

For example, the cultural rights addressed in Article 15 of CESCR relate to at least 15 of the Articles contained in the Declaration.

The International Labor Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 addresses Indigenous peoples rights to traditional lands and resources, and this convention should be considered in conjunction with the Declaration.

In December 2005 the United Nations adopted the Program of Action for the Second Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

This decision was adopted unanimously in the General Assembly, thus demonstrating that governments supported actions for significant changes in laws, policies and programs.

Governments should continue to advance the agenda of the United Nations through national efforts and close dialogue with Indigenous peoples.

The Declaration is clearly becoming the point of reference for 370 million Indigenous peoples around the world to find legal and political traction to change our status as the poorest of the poor and the most oppressed.

Les Malezer

Former Chairperson of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus on the Declaration