Native peoples score historic political victory

by Haider Rizvi, Inter Press Service

After 22 years of long and cumbersome negotiations, leaders of the world's 370 million indigenous people have won a powerful symbolic victory in their fight for recognition of the right to self-determination and control over their land and resources.

On Thursday, an overwhelming majority of the 192-member U.N. General Assembly said "yes" to a resolution calling for the adoption of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"It's a triumph for indigenous peoples around the world," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after the General Assembly vote. "This marks a historic moment when member states and indigenous peoples 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".

While pleased with the General Assembly's decision, indigenous leaders told IPS they had hoped the declaration would be adopted by consensus, but since certain countries remained unwilling to recognise their rights until the end, a majority vote was the only possible option left.

"If a few states did 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.

As expected, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand refused to accept the declaration endorsed by as many as 143 countries.

The nations that neither supported nor objected to the declaration were Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Columbia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Samoa and Ukraine.

Before the vote, many indigenous leaders accused the United States and Canada of pressuring economically weak and vulnerable nations to reject the calls for the Declaration's adoption. Initially, some African countries were also reluctant to vote in favour, but later changed their position after the indigenous leadership accepted their demand to introduce certain amendments in the text.

The Declaration emphasises 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 indigenous peoples' right to self-determination, a principle fully recognised 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 the sovereignty of states.

In return for their support, the African countries wanted the declaration to mention that it does not encourage any actions which would undermine the "territorial integrity" or "political unity" of sovereign states.

Despite the fact that the African viewpoint has been incorporated into the amended version, the draft declaration remains assertive of the indigenous peoples' right to self-determination and control over their land and resources.

"It is subject to interpretation, but we can work with this," Les Malezer, chair of the Global Indigenous Caucus, told IPS last week. Like many other indigenous leaders, Malezer, a longtime aboriginal rights activist, initially did not approve of amendments in the draft.

"We would not have gone for the amendments," he said. "But presented with the amended declaration, presented with the agreement made between approximately 130 states, then we have a very good result."

Thursday, Malezer and his colleagues in the U.N. 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 Vicky Tauli-Corpus, chairperson of the Permanent Forum, in an emotional tone filled with joy.

"This is magnificent endeavour which brought you to sit together with us to listen to our cries and struggles and to hammer out words which will respond to these is unprecedented," she told U.N. diplomats after the vote.

But in the same breath, Tauli-Corpus also raised the question of "effective implementation of the Declaration," saying it will "the test of commitment of states and the whole international community" to protect, respect and fulfill indigenous peoples collective and individual human rights.

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

International civil society groups working for the rights of indigenous peoples also expressed their joy.

'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 an independent advocacy group called Survival International.

"It recognises 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," Cakelebone added in a statement.

Survival's director Stephen Corry said he hoped the declaration would raise international standards in the same way as the universal declaration on 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.

Though pleased with the General Assembly's decision, some indigenous leaders seemed unhappy about the fact that the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand did not accept the Declaration.

"Canada has shown its true colours on our human rights," Arthur Manuel, a leader of Canada's indigenous peoples, told IPS. "It is caught up in the contradictions of not following the recommendations of the all the U.N. human rights bodies that have told it to base its indigenous policy on 'recognition and coexistence'."

Those in opposition see the Declaration as "flawed", mainly because of its strong emphasis on the right to self-determination and full control over lands and resources. In their view, they would hinder efforts for economic development and undermine the so-called established democratic norms.

Meanwhile, threats to indigenous lands and resources continue to go on in the form of mining, logging, toxic contamination, privatisation, and large-scale development projects, as well as 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," Manuel said. "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 as changing climates are likely to cause more floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and melting of glaciers all across the world.

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