Friday, September 14, 2007

The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Yesterday, after 22 years of diplomatic negotiations, the UN General Assembly passed The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a non-binding resolution calling for the recognition of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and control over their land and resources, over the objections of the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. (Eleven countries abstained from the vote.) According to Haider Rizvi’s article at

Before the vote many indigenous leaders accused the United States and Canada of pressuring economically weak and vulnerable nations to reject calls for the Declaration’s adoption. Initially, some African countries were also reluctant to vote in favor, but later changed their position after the indigenous leadership accepted their demand to introduce certain amendments in the text.

The Declaration emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures, and traditions and pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.

It also calls for recognition of the indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, a principle fully recognized by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, but deemed controversial by the United States and some of its allies who fear that it could undermine their rights to rule over all their current territory.

In return for their support, the African countries wanted the declaration to mention that it does not encourage any actions that would undermine the “territorial integrity” or “political unity” of sovereign states.

Though the African viewpoint was incorporated into the final version, the Declaration remains assertive of indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and control over their land and resources.

The big question, of course, is whether this will make an actual difference to the status and lives of indigenous peoples. I find myself wondering why the governments of Guatemala and Mexico, for instance, voted for the resolution; it’s hard to believe they have any intentions of changing their internal policies. Rizvi notes:

Though pleased with the General Assembly’s decision, some indigenous leaders seemed unhappy that the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand did not accept the Declaration.

Canada has shown its true colors on our human rights,” Arthur Manuel, a leader of Canada’s indigenous peoples, told OneWorld.

Those in opposition have said the Declaration is “flawed,” mainly because of its strong emphasis on the right to indigenous self-determination and full control over lands and resources. In their view, these clauses would hinder economic development efforts and undermine so-called “established democratic norms.”

The United States has also refused to sign on to a UN treaty on biological diversity, which calls for a “fair and equitable” sharing of the benefits derived from indigenous lands by commercial enterprises.

Meanwhile, threats to indigenous lands and resources persist, say rights activists, in the form of mining, logging, toxic contamination, privatization, large-scale development projects, and the use of genetically modified seeds.

“The entire wealth of the United States, Canada, and other so-called modern states is built on the poverty and human rights violations of their indigenous peoples,” said Manuel. “The international community needs to understand how hypocritical Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States are.”

Recent scientific studies have repeatedly warned of devastating consequences for indigenous communities in particular as changing climates are expected to cause more floods, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events across the world.

The United States and Australia have taken particular criticism also for their refusal to join the majority of the world’s nations in efforts to combat climate change.

The issues are connected, of course, even if that isn’t often recognized. Glad to see it recognized in Rizvi’s article.

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