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UN Marks Tenth Anniversary of Indigenous Rights Declaration

Reflecting on 10 years of UNDRIP at the 16th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, from April 24 through May 5, 2017.

The most high-level gathering of Indigenous Peoples of the world began this week with a celebration of the signing of a historic mandate adopted ten years ago. The 16th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNPFII) commenced on Monday April 24 with a celebration of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Cree lawyer Wilton Littlechild, who worked on crafting the Declaration beginning in the 1970s, said ten years was a significant milestone.

“Treaties and the UN Declaration are actually solutions for the survival of Indigenous Peoples,” said Littlechild.

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The Declaration is the most comprehensive international document on the obligations of nation states to the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people. But since its endorsement in September 2007, the mandate has lacked steady implementation—a much-discussed agenda item during this year’s forum.

While not legally binding under international law, the Declaration is the “legal document par excellence” in assessing the situation of indigenous peoples around the world, according to this year’s UPFII chairwoman, Mariam Wallet Aboubabkrine.

The Declaration represents a minimum set of standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous Peoples. Comprised of 23 preambular clauses and 46 articles, the resolution addresses concerns particularly relevant to individual and collective indigenous rights. Article 3 affirms Indigenous People’s right to self-determination, the very foundation of protecting and fulfilling indigenous life ways.

“The Declaration is undoubtedly a contribution and an important advance that reflects the aspirations of the Indigenous Peoples,” said Aura Leticia Teleguario, Minister of Labor for Guatemala. “The challenge now is to promote the recognition of practices, principles and values as a universal human right.”

Teleguario repeated calls for indigenous societies to continue advancing political alliances in order to fight continued injustices such as discrimination against women and children, and the trampling of rights to tribal lands, territories and resources.

The focus, then, is progress for the estimated 1,000 indigenous representatives that the UN expects to participate in the UNPFII, which was created in 2000 as a permanent meeting for Indigenous Peoples. Helping to set the tone was Canada Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, who confirmed that the country was officially retracting any reservations it had previously held against fully acknowledging the Declaration.

“This has to feel like a partnership,” said Bennett, whose Liberal Party coasted to victory in October 2015 partly on the promise that it would incorporate the Declaration into federal law. “Today I want to state Canada’s unequivocal support for the representation of indigenous self-governing nations at the UN General Assembly.”

Carolyn Bennett, Canada's Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, confirmed the country's full support for UNDRIP.

Carolyn Bennett, Canada's Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, confirmed the country's full support for UNDRIP.

Applause erupted during Bennett’s remarks. When the formal instrument had been adopted ten years earlier, Canada was among the four states that rejected it, along with the United States, Australia and New Zealand. But a year ago, the Canadian government agreed to implement the landmark document, lifting any qualifications it held on what is considered the cornerstone of the Declaration—the right to free, prior and informed consent. However, the country’s position had been a little unclear because the government had never officially removed its objections to two paragraphs that also dealt with free, prior and informed consent in a related document. 

“Free, prior and informed consent go to the heart of the Declaration,” said Bennett. “In Canada, we understand that reconciliation must include all Canadians. It is not just an indigenous issue. It, for us, is Canadian-inherited.”

Despite Bennett’s vocal support, First Nations leaders like Littlechild expressed continued caution. Canada still has not defined exactly how it will carry out the Declaration, signifying a current hurdle relevant to all indigenous societies.

“We have to see that in Canada, and I think that will be a very important step going forward,” Littlechild said.

Other First Nations leaders are expected to address or amplify Littlechild’s concerns, including Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde. On Tuesday April 25, Bellegarde delivers a statement at the UN General Assembly Hall on behalf of the Coalition on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

For live video streaming of all open meetings visit http://webtv.un.org.