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UN Adopts Historic Statement on Native Rights

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS - Despite strong objections from the United States and some of its allies, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution Thursday calling for the recognition of the world's 370 million indigenous peoples' right to self-determination and control over their lands and resources.
The adoption of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples comes after 22 years of diplomatic negotiations at the United Nations involving its member states, international civil society groups, and representatives of the world's aboriginal communities.0914 02

An overwhelming majority of UN member countries endorsed the Declaration, with 143 voting in favor, 4 against, and 11 abstaining.

The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand stood alone in voting against the resolution. The nations that neither supported nor objected were Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Samoa, and Ukraine.

"It's a triumph for indigenous peoples around the world," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after the General Assembly vote. "This marks a historic moment when member states and indigenous peoples have reconciled with their painful histories."

In her comments, General Assembly President Haya Al Khalifa described the outcome of the vote as a "major step forward towards the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all."

Pleased with the General Assembly's decision, indigenous leaders told OneWorld they wanted the declaration to be adopted by consensus, but since certain countries remained unwilling to recognize their rights until the end, a majority vote was the only possible option left.

"If a few states do not accept the declaration, then it would be a reflection on them rather than the document," said Les Malezer, an aboriginal leader from Australia, before the resolution was presented to the General Assembly.

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.

"It is subject to interpretation, but we can work with this," Malezer said last week.

Thursday, Malezer and his colleagues in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues described the world body's decision as "a major victory."

"The 13th of September 2007 will be remembered as an international human rights day for the indigenous peoples of the world," said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chairperson of the Permanent Forum, in an emotional tone filled with joy.

International civil society groups working for the rights of indigenous peoples also expressed extreme pleasure with Thursday's vote.

"We are really very happy and thrilled to hear about the adoption of the Declaration," said Botswana Bushman Jumanda Gakelebone of First People of the Kalahari, who works with the independent advocacy group Survival International.

"It recognizes that governments can no longer treat us as second-class citizens, and it gives protection to tribal peoples so that they will not be thrown off their lands like we were," Gakelebone added in a statement.

Survival's director Stephen Corry said he hoped the declaration would raise international standards in the same way the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did nearly 60 years ago.

"It sets a benchmark by which the treatment of tribal and indigenous peoples can be judged, and we hope it will usher in an era in which abuse of their rights is no longer tolerated," he added.

Vivian Stromberg, executive director of the New York-based rights group MADRE, said Thursday that the Declaration's passage "will signal a major shift in the landscape of international human rights law, in which the collective rights of indigenous peoples will finally be recognized and defended."

At the UN, indigenous leaders, however, cautioned against a possible gap between rhetoric and effective implementation of the Declaration.

"It will be the test of commitment of states and the whole international community to protect, respect, and fulfill indigenous peoples' collective and individual human rights," Tauli-Corpuz said.

"I call on governments, the UN system, indigenous peoples, and civil society at large to rise to the historic task before us and make the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a living document for the common future of humanity," she said in a statement.

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.

© 2007

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