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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 peoples
were not granted by any country. They are inherent," said Navajo Nation
Council Delegate Ervin Keeswood.

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 Indian Law 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

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

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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

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