After three decades of drafts, deliberations and delays, the United Nations General Assembly voted on September 13 to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The majority, 143 countries, voted in favor. As expected, the only countries opposing the adoption were the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The main objections of these countries centered on indigenous peoples' control over land and resources, their right to self-determination, and that the declaration might give indigenous peoples veto authority over development on their lands and territories.
Its adoption marks the first time in history that indigenous peoples' collective rights to self-determination and control over their lands and natural resources will formally be recognized by the United Nations.
"The international community is finally recognizing that indigenous peoples have a permanent right to exist as distinct peoples, and that we have a right to be self-governing," said Robert Tim Coulter, one of the original authors of the declaration who worked with chiefs from the Iroquois Confederacy to draft the first 10 points in 1976.
"The world is taking a formal stand that indigenous peoples have the right to be free from all forms of discrimination and to maintain our cultures, societies, languages and spiritual practices," said Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont., and Washington, D.C.
While the declaration is non-binding, it will still have a major influence on eliminating discrimination and human rights violations suffered by more than 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide.
The declaration sets minimal standards on how countries should treat indigenous peoples, and it will influence laws and federal policies affecting more than 560 Indian nations in the United States.
In recent years, there have been many unfavorable U.S. Supreme Court cases that denied Indian people equality under the law by simply taking their land with no compensation.
Coulter said over time the declaration will influence U.S. court decisions that too often are discriminatory and unfair. Congress, Indian nations and Native advocates also will be guided by principles in the declaration when policies in the U.S. Justice and Interior departments are being developed.
In the last five years, there have been at least four cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court looked to international law to help shape its decisions: a death penalty case regarding the mentally retarded, a case in Michigan on desegregation, and a same sex case in Texas, among others.
If international law mandates that indigenous peoples must be accorded the same rights as others, it will help reduce widespread racism and discrimination.
The declaration will be especially helpful in South and Central America, where the Mayan village of El Estor, Guatemala, was burned in recent months to make way for a nickel mine owned by a Canadian company.
One provision in the declaration that may help communities like El Estor states that indigenous peoples have the right to "free, prior and informed consent" over development affecting their lands, territories and resources.
For hundreds of years colonizing countries moved into indigenous peoples' homelands, but never shared the benefits or paid them for land and resources taken. In Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas, many tribes and indigenous peoples lack sufficient political clout to protect their ways of life when extractive industries, transnational corporations and countries decide to take their lands and resources, often with no compensation.
Armand MacKenzie, an international human rights lawyer and activist, said his people, the Innu of Labrador and Quebec, have launched legal challenges against Canada to recover land that was taken when Canada passed a law that unilaterally extinguished their rights without any consultation.
"The declaration says we have the right to restitution and compensation for lands that were stolen," MacKenzie said before the vote. "That's why Canada has been actively opposing the declaration and is expected to vote against it."
The Innu in Labrador were forcibly relocated and are said to have the highest suicide rate in the world, especially among youth. Survival International issued a report called Canada's Tibet: Killing of the Innu that documents how Canada's harsh policies have devastated a traditional culture.
Indigenous peoples' collective rights are unique by virtue of their history, cultures and ancestral ties to their homelands. While all citizens of the world have individual human rights, indigenous peoples also hold collective rights where language, culture, ceremonies, medicines, sacred sites and lands are concerned.
At the international level, human rights laws are made by treaties, conventions or covenants such as the Convention on the Rights of Women and the Convention on the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination.
The declaration is expected to eventually become a convention and then binding international law within a few years. Many states are operating by and honoring some of these rights now.