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Obama Urged to Sign Native Rights Declaration

by Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS - The United States is considering whether to endorse a major U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for the recognition of the rights of the world's 370 million indigenous peoples over their lands and resources.

Brazilian Indians from the Yawalapiti tribe in Xingu Reserve attend a celebration of Indians Day at the Memorial dos Povos Indigenas (Indigenous People Memorial) in Brasilia April 19, 2009. (REUTERS/Roberto Jayme) "The position on [this issue] is under review," Patrick Ventrell, spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the U.N., told IPS about the Barack Obama administration's stance on the non-binding U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Approved by a vast majority of the U.N. member states in September 2007, the General Assembly resolution on the declaration was rejected by the George W. Bush administration over indigenous leaders' argument that no economic or political power has the right to exploit their resources without seeking their "informed consent."

Three other "settler nations" of European descent, namely Canada, New Zealand and Australia, also voted against the declaration, which states that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their cultures and remain on their land.

However, last month, the new left-leaning government in Canberra reversed its position, announcing support for the declaration.

"We show our respect for indigenous peoples," said Jenny Macklin, a member of the Australian parliament. "We show our faith in a new era of relations between states and indigenous peoples in good faith."

The new government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has also offered an apology to the indigenous communities who suffered at the hands of European settlers for decades.

Indigenous rights activists in the United States say they want the new liberal democratic government in Washington to make a similar move to address the grievances of native communities who have long been subjected to abuse and discrimination.

"The U.S. [should] become a resolute supporter of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," argued James Polk, who writes for Foreign Policy in Focus, a progressive periodical published by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

"It's a comprehensive document that affirms that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, and that, in the exercise of their rights, they should be free from their discrimination," he added.

The declaration reflects growing concerns of aboriginal communities about the continued exploitation of their resources and suppression of their cultural vales and practices by commercial concerns and governments that are alien to their cultures.

According to many scientists, the traditional knowledge and cooperation of indigenous communities are vital elements in the global fight against climate change and loss of biodiversity.

During his election campaign, President Obama repeatedly said that he cared about the issues facing Native American communities and insisted that they could trust him - pledges that are now being watched closely.

As reached out to new voter blocs last summer, Obama made a campaign stop at an Indian reservation in Montana, where he told the audience, that, as an African American, he identified with their struggles.

"I know what it's like to not have always been respected or to have been ignored and I know what it's like to struggle and that's how I think many of you understand what's happened here on the reservation," Obama said.

In his speech, Obama added: "A lot of times you have been forgotten, just like African-Americans have been forgotten or other groups in this country have been forgotten."

In the Nov. 4 presidential elections, a vast majority of Native people voted for Obama, according to Frank LaMere of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, who led the American Indian delegation to the Democratic Convention.

On the campaign trail in Montana, Obama was adopted as an honourary member of the Crow Tribe, a ceremony that natives say is reserved for special guests. On that occasion, he was given a new name, "Barack Black Eagle."

Before Obama became the first-ever non-white president of the United States, the country faced scathing criticism from a Geneva-based U.N. rights body for its treatment of the indigenous communities and objectionable use of their traditional lands and resources.

In March 2006 and again in 2008, a panel of U.S. experts analysed the U.S. government's treatment of indigenous citizens and ruled that it was guilty of racial discrimination.

Canada, another settler-nation founded on the indigenous territories in North America, has also been scolded by the U.N. Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) for its abusive and discriminatory treatment of acts of native communities.

The right-wing government in Ottawa continues to justify its current policies towards the native population as just and fair with no indication whatsoever of a willingness to sign the U.N. document on indigenous peoples' rights.

In the United States, there appears to be some signs of policy shift with regard to the U.S. government's relations with the American Indian communities. Some representatives of indigenous tribes are currently working with Obama as advisors.

However, it remains unclear when and if the Obama administration would sign the declaration. "I can't comment further," said Ventrell about the outcome of discussions on possible U.S. support.

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