UN General Assembly Backs Indigenous Peoples’ Rights
    By Gerard Aziakou
    Agence France-Presse

    Thursday 13 September 2007

    The UN General Assembly on Thursday adopted a non-binding declaration upholding the human, land and resources rights of the world’s 370 million indigenous people, brushing off opposition from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

    The vote in the assembly was 143 in favor and four against. Eleven countries, including Russia and Colombia, abstained.

    The declaration, capping more than 20 years of debate at the United Nations, also recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination and sets global human rights standards for them.

    It states that native peoples have the right “to the recognition, observance and enforcement of treaties” concluded with states or their successors.

    Indigenous peoples say their lands and territories are endangered by such threats as mineral extraction, logging, environmental contamination, privatization and development projects, classification of lands as protected areas or game reserves amd use of genetically modified seeds and technology.

    Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the Philippine chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, joined UN chief Ban Ki-moon in hailing the vote.

    “It marks a major victory for Indigenous peoples,” said Tauli-Corpuz, adding that the document “sets the minimum international standards for the protection and promotion of the rights” of native peoples.

    But Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, countries with sizable indigenous populations, expressed disappointment with the text.

    They said they could not support it because of their concerns over provisions on self-determination, land and resources rights and giving indigenous peoples a right of veto over national legislation and state mangement of resources.

    “Unfortunately, the provisions in the Declaration on lands, territories and resources are overly broad, unclear, and capable of a wide variety of interpretations, discounting the need to recognize a range of rights over land and possibly putting into question matters that have been settled by treaty,” Canada’s UN Ambassador John McNee told the assembly.

    Among contentious issues was one article saying “states shall give legal recognition and protection” to lands, territories and resources traditionally “owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired” by indigenous peoples.

    Another bone of contention was an article upholding native peoples’ right to “redress by means that can include restitution or when not possible just, fair and equitable compensation, for their lands and resources “which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior ad informed consent”.

    Opponents also objected to one provision requiring states “to consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples …to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

    Indigenous advocates note that most of the world’s remaining natural resources – minerals, freshwater, potential energy sources – are found within indigenous peoples’ territories.

    A leader of Canada’s native community, Phil Fontaine, slammed his government’s stance.

    “We’re very disappointed with Canada’s opposition to the declaration on indigenous peoples,” said Fontaine, leader of Assembly of First Nations, who came to New York to lobby for adoption of the text.

    Canada’s indigenous population is about 1.3 million people, out of a total population of 32.7 million.

    Adoption of the declaration by the assembly had been deferred late last year at the behest of African countries led by Namibia, which raised objections about language on self-determination and the definition of “indigenous” people.

    The Africans were won over after co-sponsors amended an article to read that “nothing in the declaration may be …construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states.”

    The declaration was endorsed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council last year.

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1 Comment on UN General Assembly Backs Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

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