WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama announced Thursday he was reversing the U.S.'s position and endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The reversal comes three years after the U.N. adopted the measure in 2007, despite being opposed by the U.S., under then-president George W. Bush, as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The latter three have since endorsed the declaration, leaving the U.S. alone in its opposition.
Thursday's announcement means no countries remain opposed to the treaty, though some remain as abstainers.
The declaration lays out the fundamental rights and freedoms to which the world's indigenous peoples are entitled and prohibits discrimination against them. It also seeks to protect the cultures and traditions of these estimated 350 million indigenous peoples, over two million of whom reside within the U.S.
Though it is not legally binding, indigenous rights advocates in the U.S. had been urging Obama for over a year to re-evaluate the U.S.'s position on the declaration. His administration said last April that it would do so and followed that up with a series of consultations with indigenous leaders and NGOs, the most recent of which was in October.
In making the announcement toward the end of a speech opening the second annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, Obama's words were followed by the applause of the some 300-plus representatives of federally recognised tribes and others in attendance.
"And today I can announce that the United States is lending its support to this declaration," Obama said. "The aspirations it affirms - including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples - are ones we must always seek to fulfill. But I want to be clear: what matters far more than words - what matters far more than any resolution or declaration - are actions to match those words. And that's what this conference is about."
Earlier in his speech Obama outlined some of the actions his administration has worked on, including improving health care and schools for tribal communities, helping tribes combat drug and alcohol abuse, and resolving longstanding disputes over discrimination and resource rights.
Obama noted that "by virtue of the longstanding failure to tackle wrenching problems in Indian Country, it seemed as though you had to either abandon your heritage or accept a lesser lot in life; that there was no way to be a successful part of America and a proud Native American."
He was optimistic about the future of strengthening "government to government" relationships with tribes.
"We're moving forward. And what I hope is that we are seeing a turning point in the relationship between our nations," he said.
The U.N. declaration is a part of that, though at a State Department briefing later in the day spokesman P.J. Crowley did say, "Obviously, as with any international declaration, we have certain reservations that we will voice reflecting our own domestic and constitutional interests. But the president thinks [endorsing it] is the right thing to do."
He went on to say that though the treaty is non-binding, the administration thinks "it carries considerable moral and political force".
Both the U.N. and indigenous groups have intended this force of the agreement to be used as a tool for addressing rights violations against indigenous communities.
Robert Coulter, who helped draft the first versions of the treaty over 30 years ago, said Thursday that the U.S.'s endorsement is the successful culmination of over three decades of work by indigenous and human rights groups - but also merely the beginning of efforts to ensure justice for American Indians.
"To see the promise of the declaration become a reality, we must continue to fight for laws, policies and relationships that take into account the permanent presence of Indian nations in this country, and throughout the world," said Coulter, now executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, which provides legal assistance to indigenous peoples in the U.S.
One of the main ways in which Coulter sees the declaration aiding in this fight is as a tool for evaluating current and future laws through asking questions like whether the law measures up to the standards of the Declaration.
He also hopes it sets a groundwork for including indigenous peoples in decision-making processes and ensuring they are consulted on matters that affect them.
Likely the most contentious aspect of the treaty is its provision requiring "free, prior and informed consent" prior to the governments taking actions the significantly impact indigenous communities.
The State Department's interpretation of this provision, as laid out in a detailed statement released later on Thursday, is that it calls "for a process of meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, but not necessarily the agreement of those leaders, before the actions addressed in those consultations are taken."
For its part, the Indian Law Resource Center seems to largely agree with that interpretation, as its comments to the State Department during the consultation process emphasised that the declaration would require no improvements to U.S. law concerning indigenous lands that are not already required by the U.S. constitution, and that the "free, prior and informed consent" provision would not give indigenous a people veto but, rather, require a process that must be followed before taking action that could be construed as an infringement of rights.