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RIGHTS: U.N. Delays Vote on Native Self-Determination

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 28 2006 (IPS) - Leaders of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples and their supporters expressed sadness and anger Tuesday as a subsidiary body of the U.N. General Assembly rejected a draft declaration calling for the international recognition of native peoples’ right to self-determination and control over their traditional lands.

The Third Committee of the General Assembly, which deals with social, humanitarian and cultural issues, decided to put aside the matter for further discussion, as a majority of member states approved a resolution in favour of deferment.

“It is shameful,” said Arthur Manuel, chief of the Secwepemc Nation, about the outcome of the vote on the declaration. “This was an historic opportunity for the U.N. to at least recognise our inalienable rights.”

Les Malezer, an Australian aboriginal leader who chairs the Indigenous Caucus at the U.N., added: “This is unjustifiable. This is an attempt to derail the whole process.”

Both Manuel and Malezer said they had hoped that the General Assembly would approve the declaration since it was already adopted by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council during the summer.

Though African nations had supported the declaration in Geneva, this time around they changed their position, demanding that the wording on the “right to self-determination” be changed, a move that undermined the attempt to get the declaration adopted by the Assembly during its current session.

In interviews with IPS, some indigenous leaders said they were surprised at the new stance of the African bloc, but others suggested it was the U.S. and its allies which had lobbied behind the scenes.

“It’s the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand who are responsible for this,” an indigenous leader told IPS after Namibia sponsored a resolution in the committee seeking amendments to the declaration on the ground that the text “contradicts” its constitution.

In a run-up to the vote, a diplomat from an African nation told IPS that some governments on the continent feared that if they recognised the principle of self-determination, then they might find themselves with unwanted rebellions by certain tribes.

“Almost all of Africa is indigenous,” he said. “So the concept of self-determination does not apply over there. It could create trouble.”

Still, many indigenous leaders who work closely with the U.N. said they had no doubts that the change in the African bloc’s position on the declaration was the outcome of external pressure.

“There are many countries in Africa which are economically vulnerable,” said an indigenous representative before the vote.

Australia, Canada and New Zealand voted in support of the Namibian amendment, whereas most Latin American and European nations opposed the resolution. The U.S. abstained.

“It seems strange to ask for more time, as 24 years worth of negotiations have taken place,” said a Mexican diplomat. “What really has been delayed is the paying of attention to the rights of indigenous peoples.”

The U.S. and its allies argue that the declaration is “inconsistent with international law”. The U.S. has also repeatedly held that the indigenous land claim ignores current reality by “appearing to require the recognition to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens”.

Indigenous leaders describe this argument as “racist” while a U.N. body that investigates discriminatory practices also views this line of reasoning as unacceptable.

The declaration was first put together by the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues last May, following more than 20 years of intense diplomacy involving governments, native representatives and numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

In addition to recognising the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and resources, the declaration states that all indigenous people must be protected from forced assimilation and the destruction of their cultures.

Even though the resolution would not be legally binding, supporters said its approval would have increased pressure on governments to observe universal principles, such as democracy, justice and nondiscrimination.

Deploring the committee’s decision, the London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International said the declaration was an attempt to “fill an important gap in the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights,” and warned the governments against any move to “weaken” its text.

“It was the best that could be achieved,” the group said in a statement. “Any revision of the draft text must be transparent and allow full and effective participation by indigenous peoples and NGOs.”

The resolution in support of amendments to the draft was endorsed by 82 countries while 67 voted against it, with 25 abstentions.

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