NEW YORK – The stage is set for a showdown at the United Nations between countries favoring adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples and a handful of nations – including the United States – that are actively opposing it.
The U.N. General Assembly, comprised of 191 nation states, is expected to adopt the long-awaited declaration near the end of November, pending political roadblocks that may delay its passage.
The nations opposing the declaration are the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia and New Zealand – countries with large populations of indigenous peoples who own significant land and resources, including the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States.
The declaration is an unprecedented set of standards that would define and protect the human rights of indigenous peoples relating to land, resources, languages, cultures, spiritual beliefs and their right to self-determination.
Self-determination is one key reason the United States and other countries are opposing its adoption, fearing that it gives indigenous peoples too much power, according to a joint statement issued in early November.
Rosemary Banks, the representative from New Zealand, speaking on behalf of Australia and the United States, called the declaration “confusing, unworkable, contradictory and deeply flawed.” She said the declaration’s reference to self-determination could be construed as a unilateral right of self-determination and possible secession that would threaten the political unity and territorial integrity of member states.
However, these statements were widely discussed during negotiations and it was agreed that other sections of the declaration temper these concerns.
“The declaration is serious business. I understand why governments may have concerns. This is not just a statement of indigenous hopes,” said Robert “Tim” Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont., and one of the original authors of the declaration.
“It is reasonable, fair and enormously important to indigenous peoples. The declaration must be adopted immediately,” he said. “We have worked for nearly 30 years and we are prepared to continue fighting for adoption of the declaration for as long as it takes. Many other indigenous people are working to do the same.”
In letters sent to all member nations in October urging immediate adoption, Coulter said, “Indigenous peoples continue to suffer disproportionately from extreme poverty, discrimination, environmental degradation, and other human rights abuses. In some places these abuses are leading to the extinction of indigenous peoples and their ways of life. Such abuses and discrimination must no longer be tolerated.
“The international community now has an opportunity to help correct historical injustices and prevent future abuses by adopting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
At press time, indigenous representatives attending the 61st session of the United Nations were urgently lobbying against a new resolution by some African nations to postpone adoption of the declaration. A counterproposal by Peru also was introduced, advocating for its immediate adoption.
“Some African governments seem to have been pressured by these anti-adoption countries to push their agenda,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpus, chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “They might be able to get some Asian governments to support their resolution. China, India, the Philippines and Nepal spoke in favor of its adoption, but there might be Asian countries who will support the African resolution.”
Tauli-Corpus issued an urgent call for people to lobby their governments to ensure that the declaration is adopted.
At a U.N. briefing held to raise awareness of the declaration, Craig Mokhiber, officer in charge of the New York office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, “The declaration covers the full range of rights of indigenous peoples. It catalogues the kinds of violations that have historically plagued, and sadly, continue to plague indigenous peoples from around the world.
“There are attacks on their culture, their land, their identity and their own voice. The declaration lays out the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples. It is something that has been a very long time coming.”
Armstrong Wiggins, a Miskito leader from Nicaragua who is director of the Washington, D.C., office of the ILRC, said the declaration’s foundation was laid 30 years ago when indigenous leaders first went to the United Nations to seek recourse for serious human rights violations that threaten their ways of life.
Discriminatory and unjust laws, policies and practices of many governments were resulting in the mass dispossession or destruction of indigenous lands, territories, and natural resources. They called on the international community to help stop these destructive forces, strengthen international human rights law and recognize indigenous rights to exist as distinct peoples.
“It has been a long process working to advance our rights on every level with the United Nations, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and other agencies,” he said.
“Our survival depends on ensuring we are able to protect our ancestral lands and maintain our traditional and cultural rights. The U.S. and other countries have a moral obligation to respect and promote the human rights of indigenous peoples by adopting the declaration.”
The declaration will help ensure the physical and cultural survival of more than 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide and will be a major step towards eliminating the widespread human rights violations they suffer.
While it is not binding on governments, it is a positive step that puts pressure on governments to live up to universal principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, equality, nondiscrimination, good governance and good faith.
<i>Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is director of communications for the Indian Law Resource Center with offices in Helena, Mont., and Washington, D.C. For more information, visit www.indian law.org or call (406) 449-2006.