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U.N. Declaration: No time to bemoan delay

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Among those disappointed with the delayed adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a calm voice has emerged from an unlikely vantage point. After many years of pouring blood, sweat, and tears into the declaration, Robert “Tim” Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, is not hanging his head. Instead, Coulter, one of the original authors of the draft, has called for the fight to continue, despite international responses of shock and anger over the perceived loss. The world indigenous community must refocus and not mourn the delay as a setback. The war is not over; we must get back on our horse.

The draft declaration is an affirmation of the human rights of millions of indigenous peoples worldwide. It is an unprecedented set of minimum standards that defines and protects the rights of indigenous people as they relate to land and natural resources, culture and self-determination. At the most basic level, an adoption of the draft would recognize the humanity of indigenous peoples and their fundamental right to exist as distinct peoples. It is deeply unsettling that some members of the world community do not agree that our collective suffering as indigenous people should end, and that our dignity, survival and well-being can be postponed.

From the movement’s very beginning, the 1977 Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples of the Americas in Geneva, Switzerland, indigenous assertion of full rights under the rules of international law has met with resistance. The principled acknowledgment of indigenous rights runs counter to the tools of colonization – governmental discrimination against, neglect of and injustice towards people, their lands and natural resources. To be certain, the very infrastructures of those nations opposed to the draft were built upon the backs of indigenous people and resources.

This point has not gone unnoticed. Valerie Taliman, director of communications for the ILRC, noted in Indian Country Today that “the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia and New Zealand – countries with large populations of indigenous peoples who own significant land and resources, including 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States” – opposed the declaration. Canada’s 630 First Nations currently face threats to their nationhood. There are half a million self-identified indigenous people in New Zealand, with Maoris comprising 15 percent of the population. Australia’s aborigines exist under the thumb of a government condemned as racist by the United Nations. Deadly conflicts, as well as extreme poverty and AIDS, ravage Africa’s indigenous population. Nonetheless, it was the New Zealand representative, speaking on behalf of these countries, who “called the declaration ‘confusing, unworkable, contradictory and deeply flawed.’” Whether the objection was made in good faith is highly questionable.

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The scope of this declaration is extensive, but that is precisely the point. The Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People on Dec. 6 stated, “It is incumbent upon the Human Rights Council to reaffirm its commitment in promoting and protecting the dignity, survival and well-being of the millions of indigenous people around the world whose rights have long been ignored and neglected.” For the people who do not have a voice, we must regroup and move forward.

With a handful of votes needed to adopt the declaration into law, an assessment of the current situation is needed. It won’t be easy, but the task is still doable. Organizing to identify those members opposed to the declaration, as well as their specific issues, creates a base for a concerted, yearlong lobbying effort. It is an opportunity to tighten the process, to hold steady the proponents while narrowing in to secure the votes needed for a positive outcome.

It’s important to view the process itself as a victory. Forming and carrying this major message forth has put us on the world sociopolitical map. Indigenous people have come out from remote areas of the Earth to make contact and form networks in order to educate the wider realm of their struggles. Generations of Native people consider themselves part of a world community, with a sense of responsibility to protect our basic rights as distinct peoples. This 30-year path has wrought many wins and losses, and the delay serves as a notice: We have 10 months until the end of the General Assembly’s next session to fashion an adoptable draft for the victory.