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Investors urge unqualified Declaration endorsement

BETHESDA, Md. – The movement to persuade the federal government to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples without qualification has grown beyond American Indian and religious communities to the financial world.

Calvert Investments, a financial services company that holds $14.5 billion in assets, and a coalition of investors have submitted comments to the State Department and White House urging the unconditional endorsement of the Declaration.

“Calvert believes indigenous peoples in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe deserve the affirmation and recognition of the broad array of rights set forth in the Declaration, including those related to self-determination, culture, land and natural resources, means of subsistence, treaty rights, non-discrimination, health and social services, protection of sacred sites, education and language,” Calvert CEO and president Barbara J. Krumsiek wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton July 14.

“All these are rights which indigenous peoples themselves have identified as necessary to their survival, well-being and dignity – rights which the international community should fully embrace,” Krumsiek wrote.

The U.N. General Assembly voted to adopt UNDRIP in September 2007 with near unanimous approval. Four states – the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand – voted against the Declaration. Australia and New Zealand have since endorsed the human rights document and Canada has indicated its intention to do so.

The National Congress of American Indians and the United South and Eastern Tribes, the country’s two largest non-governmental organizations representing Indian nations, have passed resolutions urging the government to endorse the Declaration.

Last summer, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution supporting the endorsement of UNDRIP that was quickly followed by similar resolutions by the Indian Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs.

Growing support for the U.S. to reverse its rejection of the Declaration led up to the announcement in April by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice that the U.S. would review its position on the Declaration. The review is now underway with scheduled consultation meetings and a State Department Web site where people may e-mail comments.

Calvert, a socially responsible investment firm, not only asked the federal government to publicly endorse the Declaration but also to disclose its plan for fully implementing the human rights statement.

In 1999, Calvert was the first SRI to develop explicit criteria to address the rights and cultural integrity of American Indians and indigenous peoples around the world.

“We believe that it’s important to share an investor perspective and add another dimension about why it’s important to endorse the Declaration,” said Reed Montague, the indigenous peoples’ rights and product marketing analyst at Calvert.

Montague and Calvert’s team of sustainability analysts review corporations that the firm invests in to see if they have policies and procedures in place that consider and support indigenous people’s rights and to encourage firms to develop appropriate policies and demonstrate best practices regarding how their products, services and operations affect the lives, culture and traditions of indigenous peoples.

This is particularly important for companies operating on indigenous lands, Montague said.

“One of the angles we thought was important to share, as an investing company, is that if the U.S. adopts the UNDRIP we think that is going to help our engagement with these companies in order for them to understand how and why it’s so important,” Montague said.

The U.S. rejection of the Declaration has had the opposite effect, according to Steven Heim, managing director of Boston Commons Assets Management, a socially responsible investment company, and chairman of the advocacy committee of the Indigenous Peoples Working Group of the Social Investment Forum, a national nonprofit membership association for professionals, firms, institutions and organizations engaged in socially responsible and sustainable investing.

“Boston Commons has heard some companies say that not having the U.S. endorse the Declaration has made it difficult for them on a policy basis to include the (principles of the) Declaration in their own corporate human rights policies,” Heim said.

Boston Commons is among the coalition of SRI investors and organizations – including Calvert – that has submitted comments to the State Department, the White House, the National Security Council, and other federal agencies to urge the endorsement of the Declaration “in a positive manner without qualifications, consistent with international human rights.”

The groups include: the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin’s Oneida Trust; the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s Mashantucket Pequot (Western) Endowment Trust; The Morning Star Institute; Mercy Investment Services Corp.; The Christopher Reynolds Foundation; Walden Asset Management; and First Affirmative Financial Network.

Heim said he wrote the coalition’s letter with input from Gary Brouse, the program director at the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, and Armstrong Wiggins, director of the Washington office of the Indian Law Resource Center.

The Declaration “represents a historic milestone in the evolution of the rights of indigenous peoples. We fully expect these rights to be increasingly articulated and adopted both in national and international law. Many of the rights in the Declaration are already being implemented in a number of U.S. federal laws, policies and executive orders,” the coalition wrote.

The Social Funds Web site recently cited a report from EIRIS, a United Kingdom-based investment research firm, which documents the material risks to companies that disregard the rights of indigenous peoples. It quotes John Ruggie, the special representative of the U.N. secretary general on business and human rights, saying that “community challenges on environmental and human rights grounds. … can cause delays in permits, reduced output, reputational hits and project cancellations.”

The investors’ coalition said U.S. endorsement of the Declaration is important to provide “federal policy certainty” for corporations operating on indigenous lands globally.

“As investors, we believe that environmental, social and governance issues have a significant impact on long-term financial returns. We expect that companies that respect indigenous peoples rights and build good relations with indigenous nations will prosper in the long run,” they said.