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POLITICS: U.N. Faces Test on Native Rights

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 13 2006 (IPS) - Even though various U.N. agencies have endorsed an international document that calls for full recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, the United States and a handful of other nations continue to stand in the way of its approval by the 192-member General Assembly.

Indigenous leaders, attending the current session of the General Assembly, told IPS at a news conference here Friday that they hoped that the General Assembly would adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by consensus, but said they were not sure what would happen in light of opposition from the United States and its allies.

“It will be embarrassing for the U.N. if it votes [down] the declaration. It will be shameful,” said Aqqaluk Lynge, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an organisation based in the Inuit territories in Greenland, the United States, Canada and Russia.

The declaration, which has already been approved by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, was put together by the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues last May, following years of intense diplomacy involving governments, native peoples’ representatives and numerous non-governmental organisations.

The General Assembly is expected to discuss the issue in coming days. The declaration recognises the rights of indigenous people to their lands and resources and to live as they wish. It states that indigenous people must be protected from forced assimilation and the destruction of their cultures.

Even if approved, the declaration would not be legally binding. Nevertheless, its supporters say the declaration would serve to increase pressure on governments to observe universal principles such as democracy, justice and nondiscrimination.


“This is a declaration, not an international law. This is not something that countries will have to follow,” said Kent Lebsock, executive director of the New York-based American Indian Law Alliance, while criticising the role the U.S. and its allies have played in diplomatic talks on the declaration.

“It’s a recommendation on how to interact with indigenous people,” he added. “It’s just the first step, so that we begin to discover how to use it.”

At issue is the treatment of disparate indigenous populations who, according to U.N. estimates, add up to more than 370 million people worldwide.

Indigenous leaders said they had been assured of support from many nations, including the European Union, but added they saw no signs of flexibility in the attitude of the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

The three countries have consistently opposed the text’s embrace of indigenous peoples’ demand for “self-determination”.

“No government can accept the notion of creating different classes of citizens,” delegations from the three countries said in a joint statement recently that also described the indigenous communities’ demand to determine their own affairs as “inconsistent with international law”.

They said the indigenous land claims ignore current reality “by appearing to require the recognition to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens.”

Similar controversy has surfaced over the declaration’s recognition of indigenous peoples’ demand that the holders or seekers of commercial patents on seeds, plants and other forms of traditional knowledge must first obtain consent from the communities that discovered or developed the assets in the first place.

U.S. and other delegates have argued that free and informed prior consent would run counter to the current intellectual property rights regime, which favours commercial development.

To indigenous leaders and advocates, however, such opposition to the declaration is the attitude of colonisers who have yet to face up to centuries of abuse and exploitation.

“The imperial era was largely based on the dispossession of most of the world’s indigenous people,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, an advocacy group based in Britain. “It cannot be considered over until the world accepts these peoples’ rights.”

Native leaders said recently that Canada has also expressed opposition to the principle of self-determination, although in the past it had lent its unconditional support for the cause of indigenous peoples.

“It did a huge flip-flop, which was most unfortunate, after the election of their current conservative government,” Lebsock told IPS. “They are now back squarely in the U.S. camp.”

Meanwhile, at the news conference, Enrique Berruga, Mexico’s ambassador to the U.N., said his country fully stood with indigenous leaders and that it would rally support for a consensus vote on the declaration.

“We expect the declaration would be adopted with consensus for sure,” he told IPS. “We will be pushing for that. It has been discussed long enough. It is high time for it to be adopted.”

“Those who have decided to step away, I think, they will have to pay,” he added. “They will have to figure it out how to explain it to their own people. There is a cost.”

 
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