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NEWS ANALYSIS/COMMENTARY: UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: A Sad Day at Turtle Bay

Posted by kinchendavid on November 29, 2006

By Rebecca Sommer

New York, NY — It took two decades of discussions between indigenous peoples and governments to develop — in a truly slow pace — a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was supposed to be finally adopted Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006, at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City.

Not a treaty with binding legal obligations, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples nevertheless holds “situation-specific” guidelines on the rights of peoples (tribal, indigenous, ethnic minorities) explaining how the rights of the UN universal declaration of Human Rights apply to the very particular case of Indigenous peoples around the world.

Many Indigenous peoples feel that the Declaration constitutes only minimum standards for their survival, well-being and dignity. The United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have been during the years the most vocal in opposing suggested language in the declaration’s negotiation process, a process advanced by Indigenous representatives from around the world.

The Declaration which was finally to be adopted at the UNGA is often described by indigenous delegates as being of second range standards and below expectations and needs. But the Indigenous delegates participating at the Declaration’s process for over 20 years considered that it would be better to have this urgently needed Declaration — than none at all.

But on Nov. 28 at the current session of the UN General Assembly in New York, the adoption of this important human rights instrument — one of the most discussed and studied declarations in U.N. history — came to a halt, even though the newly formed United Nations Human Rights Council urged the General Assembly to formally adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Canada, a country which brags about its high human rights standards, and a member of the Human Rights Council, actively opposed the adoption of the Declaration.

“Canada no longer enjoys a ‘blue beret’ reputation at the United Nations. Canada’s disgraceful and disgusting conduct against Indigenous People at both the national and international levels is being noted,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

A resolution put forward by the Namibian delegation — in effect, a non-action motion on the Declaration — was supported by a majority of Nation States with 82 voting in favor, 67 Nation States voting not in favor and 25 Nation States abstaining.

Indigenous representatives who traveled to NYC to lobby governments to support the adoption of the Declaration reacted in frustration and disbelief. Many Indigenous representatives worked long and hard to get the Declaration to this point.

“They decided to put another year of work into it –- but how will that be deliberated?” asked Petuuche Gilbert, a member of Acoma tribe in New Mexico. ”We as Indigenous peoples are highly concerned that we will be left out of the process, and that only the states will decide, and will change and demolish the Declaration, especially in regards to our rights to self-determination and land rights. They will subject us again and again to the [nation] states’ discriminating rules.”

The Declaration does not create any new human rights, but articulates guidelines for the very diverse needs of a collective peoples — not individuals, but Indigenous Peoples. As nations without a country, Indigenous people have struggled for decades to be respected as a collective, to maintain their unique cultural traditions, to have their rights for self-determination, their distinct aspirations and their unique ways of life as a peoples.

Indigenous Peoples, (ethnic minorities, tribal peoples, aboriginal people) have their own languages, political, social, cultural and religious structures and systems. Being the first people, or the original people to the land they reside on — indigenous peoples are often separated by artificial borders of countries, which they have never created.

One can find Native American Indians such as the Mohawk living at both sides of the border created by Canada and the US. The O’odham living at the Mexican side or the U.S. side. The Ashaninka in Peru or Brazil. The examples are endless. So are the never ending stories of Indigenous peoples being forced of their traditional lands, most often for development purposes.

Indigenous peoples are the poorest of the poor, the most discriminated and the most disadvantages of all.

The Declaration which was made inactive today by the majority vote of member states at the UN GA holds well articulated, clear articulations of obligations for member states, which most often colonized the land and it’s indigenous people. But it is obvious, that they do not want to loosen the tight and merciless grip of unfair and abusive power over Indigenous Peoples.

* * *

Rebecca Sommer is the United Nations representative for the Society for Threatened Peoples International, in consultative status to the UN (ECOSOC). The German-born, New York City-based human rights activist is also a filmmaker who has just released “Hunted Like Animals,” a documentary on the plight of Hmong refugees in Southeast Asia. The film had its world premiere last week in St. Paul, MN.

Photo of U.N. Headquarters by Dave Kinchen 

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