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White Face: Indigenous peoples still lack human rights

On June 29, an announcement was made that the United Nations Human Rights Council had passed the Declaration on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Those of us who have been attending the debates for many years did not immediately jump for joy. Instead, we wanted to know which declaration was approved: the original sub-commission text or the chair’s text. Sadly, it was the chair’s text. Even the words used to proclaim the declaration did not proclaim a declaration.

Preambular Paragraph 19 found on page 20 of the 80-page document states:

“Solemnly proclaims the following United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a standard of achievement to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect.”

It is this phrase – “to be pursued” – that tells us we must still continue to seek, or “pursue,” our human rights. This phrase was inserted by the chair of the Working Group on the Draft Declaration, Luis Chavez from Peru, and did NOT have consensus from the working group at any of the meetings.

The same Preambular Paragraph 19, the one that DID have consensus from many indigenous peoples and nation-state diplomats during the creation of the declaration, the one originally stated in the sub-commission text, read:

“Solemnly proclaims the following United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

This is the correct way to proclaim a declaration and was approved by two, yes two, U.N. bodies: the Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, which is now the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. These two bodies passed what came to be known as the Sub-Commission Text 12 years ago, in 1994. That was after 10 years, which began in 1984, of working with hundreds of indigenous peoples to write the declaration as a draft that would include actual human rights!

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After 22 years of working on finally establishing human rights for indigenous peoples, since we were forgotten or deliberately excluded from the so-called Universal Declaration on Human Rights that was approved at the United Nations in 1949, the new U.N. Human Rights Council should have looked at the history of their own committees rather than hastily accept the words of one man, Luis Chavez. In essence, he has struck down all the work of 22 years by the two committees, by indigenous delegates and by representatives of the nation-states who really believed the U.N. system could work. One man, Chavez, has denied human rights to the 350 million indigenous peoples of the world.

This danger was foreseen two years ago when six indigenous representatives held a hunger strike/prayer fast in the meeting room at the United Nations in Geneva because Chavez had said he was only going to submit his “chair’s text” to the Commission on Human Rights. The hunger strike/prayer fast was successful in ensuring that the sub-commission text would also be submitted. Instead of making a decision, even though encouraged to at that time by several members of the commission, the work on the draft was extended for another year, making it 11 years of debates instead of 10: and then the commission was abolished. This left the decision to the HRC.

If this most recent action by the HRC is any indication of the kinds of decisions that are going to be made, which disregard decades of work and recommendations by their own committees, then where can indigenous nations and peoples go with human rights violations?

It is true that Russia and Canada (speaking also for the United States, Australia and New Zealand) voted against the adoption of this declaration. Their reasons for going against this declaration and ours are totally different. Yet in this one instance, we do agree that this declaration should not have been adopted. It gives false hope to the most marginalized peoples and nations of the world.

What can be done? Complaints can be filed with the HRC and with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour. Will they do anything? I don’t know, but they must be made aware that not all indigenous peoples are content to stand by any longer without any real human rights. Voices must be loudly raised before this so-called declaration is taken to the U.N. General Assembly for approval in September.

Indigenous peoples and, hopefully, anyone concerned that human rights are available to all peoples must speak up to stop this travesty. No human rights are available for indigenous nations and peoples at this time. No human rights for indigenous nations and peoples will be available in the future if this most recent “declaration” is universally accepted. This is a mockery of human rights that must not be allowed to continue.

<i>Charmaine White Face, whose Lakota name is Zumila Wobaga, is Oglala Tetuwan Oceti Sakowin (Oglala Lakota from the Great Sioux Nation). She is a grandmother, writer and spokesman for the Teton Sioux Nation Treaty Council. White Face may be reached at</i>