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Indigenous Human Rights Negotiations Progress

GENEVA—Native delegations at the United Nations are making progress in negotiations toward the eventual adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an unprecedented set of standards that would define and protect the international human rights of indigenous peoples.

The Indian Law Resource Center, Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Navajo Nation and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) are among the lead advocates for creating strong rights for self-determination and self-governance as consultations continued through mid-December in the U.N. Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

''The Navajo Nation is here to help the world community understand that First Nations have the right to sovereignty over its lands and territories. It's important for them to understand that our rights as indigenous Indigenous peoples' rights are not granted by any country. They are inherent,'' said Navajo Nation Council international human rights laws.

Debate has been sharp—particularly on land and natural resources—as member countries of the U.N. and indigenous peoples work toward building understanding and consensus on specific issues affecting the territorial, political, economic, legal, social and cultural rights of the world's 360 million indigenous peoples.

''There have been huge divisions and passionate debates in crafting language for articles that can reach consensus,'' said attorney Tim Coulter, executive director of the IndianLaw Resource Center in Helena, Mont. and Washington, D.C., who has been extensively involved in drafting the declaration for 29 years.

''Slowly we are overcoming tremendous differences despite the fact that there are indigenous peoples from literally all over the world—Africa, Asia, Pacific Islands, Mexico, South America, the Arctic—with different backgrounds and different situations to consider. What we have in common is our work defending our rights to determine our own futures, our own laws, our own development.''

Indigenous delegates have been educating countries about indigenous positions on self- determination, the preservation of cultural and spiritual traditions, collective land and natural resource rights, border-crossing, and their right to exist as distinct nations and tribes.

''The process is advancing and we are having some notable success in discussions,'' said Darwin Hill, a representative of the Haudenosaunee. ''We have been telling the U.S. delegates they need to be more flexible in their positions. By providing them with a steady dialogue and education on our issues over the years, they are gaining greater understanding of our concerns.''

Consensus in the U.N. Working Group is forming around a land rights article that states: ''Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.''

The declaration would call on countries to give full legal recognition and protection to these lands and resources in accordance with the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.

''In light of many unfortunate developments in Indian country regarding relationships with countries, the Navajo Nation is exercising its sovereignty at the international level and actively engaging in making international laws,'' said Rex Lee Jim, Navajo Council delegate from Rock Point who also serves on the Navajo Judiciary Committee.

''We know that laws made in Geneva eventually become laws in nations. It may take years, but these laws eventually will impact the Navajo Nation. It is in our best interest in the long run that we are involved in making laws that affect us.''

Some countries have tried to limit jurisdiction and control over land and resources. Much of the world's remaining natural resources are on lands owned by indigenous peoples, who often suffer severe negative impacts from development projects undertaken without their informed consent or appropriate compensation.

Indigenous delegates are also seeking redress for lands and resources taken in the past.

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One article of the declaration provides for claims for return of land or compensation.

Armand MacKenzie, attorney for the mineral-rich Innu Nation in northern Quebec and Labrador, repeatedly argued for just and fair compensation for Native people who have been relocated from their homelands and deprived of their traditional hunting and gathering territories.

MacKenzie, who is involved in a major land claim for his people, said that while significant progress has occurred in negotiations over the last year, it is fundamental that the declaration contain provisions for Native people to retain as much control as possible over their homelands.

''There are some difficult areas concerning land and resource rights that have taken years to resolve, but we are committed to negotiating in the best interest of our people back home. It's their land and way of life that we are fighting for,'' he said.

Another area that remains a point of contention is the spiritual and cultural relationships Native peoples have with their homelands.

Current language in the declaration would require countries to give legal respect to the lands that indigenous peoples hold collectively, including their aboriginal lands, and to ensure access to areas with spiritual and cultural significance that are no longer owned by indigenous peoples.

Coulter said there is an unusual flexibility and good will on the part of a number of countries—including Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Spain and Brazil, in particular—to recognize collective rights and rights to self-determination that have in the past presented a great many problems.

''One topic that has not been easily understood is [that of the] collective rights that indigenous peoples have to land and culture,'' he said. ''In most countries, the emphasis is on individual rights. They have had to learn about our cultures and traditions to understand the importance of collective rights. A few years ago, they would not even talk about it. Now they are agreeing to collective rights, which is something new in international law.''

As the second week came to a close, 23 of the 67 draft provisions have been agreed upon.

''I think these should be provisionally adopted when the Working Group reconvenes in January. This is very encouraging,'' Coulter said. The U.N. Working Group will have a five-day session in Geneva beginning Jan. 30.

Ambassador Tyge Lehmann from Denmark urged all delegations to move forward with compromise in order to push for adoption by the U.N. General Assembly as early as next year.

''At the United Nations in September, 191 nation-states talked extensively about advancing the world's indigenous peoples. Governments were urged to consider adopting the declaration as soon as possible,'' he said. ''For the first time ever, we have a very positive signal indicating an expectation that we will see adoption of these rights very soon.''

The declaration contains 20 introductory paragraphs and 47 articles covering a wide range of human rights, spanning spiritual beliefs, language, lands, natural resources, education, and economic and social issues. If adopted, it will be the most comprehensive statement on the rights of indigenous peoples ever developed.

The declaration must reach consensus in the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations before being adopted by the General Assembly, a process that many hope will be completed within the next year if negotiations continue well.

Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is director of communications for the Indian Law Resource Center. For more information visit or call (406) 449-2006.