Lutz: Adoption of U.N. declaration a matter of course


The indigenous peoples of Madre de Dios, Peru, live in a remote rainforest that sets world records for biodiversity. Unfortunately, that biodiversity includes mahogany; and with global mahogany prices at record levels, their lands are being desecrated by illegal loggers who strip away the forest and build illegal roads to reach it that attract settlers onto indigenous lands. Worse still, they trick Native peoples into working for them at logging camps that quickly enslave workers into debt-bondage.

Their situation is repeated, in one way or another, around the world every day as indigenous peoples find their lands, their resources, their religions, their languages and their very identities threatened. And now the international agreement that might halt this assault on the world's unique cultures is itself at risk at the United Nations. In May, while indigenous representatives from Madre de Dios and hundreds of American Indians, First Peoples from Canada, and other groups from around the globe took part in the annual meeting of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Rights, the U.N. General Assembly considered whether indigenous peoples have rights at all.

The need for a declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples has been discussed in one U.N. forum or another for 25 years. In June 2006, at its inaugural session, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to approve a declaration that recognizes indigenous peoples' rights.

General Assembly ratification of the declaration should have been a matter of course. Instead, to everyone's surprise, it derailed there last fall. Namibia, supported by all the other African states, used a procedural maneuver to delay the vote.

The African states expressed concern that the declaration does not define ''indigenous'' and that it supports self-determination for indigenous peoples. They take the view that all Africans are indigenous, and that self-

determination only applies to nations trying to free themselves from the yoke of colonialism.

But the real impetus for delay came from the same powerful states that have objected to the declaration all along: the United States, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. They do not like language in the declaration that gives indigenous peoples, like those from Madre de Dios, rights to their lands and resources. Nor do they want to have to obtain indigenous peoples' consent before cutting timber or drilling for oil on their lands.

What rights do indigenous peoples seek? First, they want to be recognized for who they are: distinct groups with their own unique cultures. Indigenous peoples want to enjoy and pass on to their children their histories, languages, traditions, modes of internal governance, spiritual practices and all else that makes them who they are. They want to pray on their ancestral lands without finding that they have been dug up to construct a gold mine, fenced off to create a safari park, or watered with sewage effluent pumped from a nearby city.

Second, they want their governments to understand that ''self-determination'' has a different meaning for them than it did for colonial-dominated nations in the mid-20th century. For them, self-determination is the right to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development inside the country in which they live, not the right to secession.

Third, indigenous peoples want to enjoy the same rights as all other people without discrimination. They want to be protected from genocide, arbitrary execution, torture, forced relocation or assimilation, and to enjoy their rights to freedom of expression, association and religion. But because they are different, indigenous peoples also want to be part of the decision-making process when it comes to the forms their education, health care and economic development will take.

Fourth, indigenous peoples want their rights to the lands, territories and resources to be respected. Where such rights conflict with the needs of the state or other peoples, they want to participate as equals in a transparent process for meeting everyone's needs in a fair and respectful way. If the resolution is that indigenous peoples must move, they want equitable reparation.

Fifth, indigenous peoples want to live in peace. They want the armed conflicts that embroil the states in which they live to take place somewhere other than on their lands.

Similarly, they want the loggers, miners and development policy planners to acknowledge their ownership of their lands and resources, and have the right to make free and informed decisions about what happens to them.

For 500 years, indigenous peoples around the world have shared the experience of being marginalized, manipulated and abused. For the past quarter-century, they have turned to the United Nations for formal recognition that they, too, have rights.

By delaying the vote, the General Assembly has effectively shut indigenous peoples out of deliberations on the declaration's future. The action has now moved to the backrooms of power where indigenous peoples have no say. Indigenous peoples around the globe are united behind the Human Rights Council's text. It is time for the General Assembly to embrace indigenous peoples as part of the human family by adopting the declaration as written.

Ellen Lutz is executive director of Cultural Survival and a member of the AAA Committee for Human Rights.