Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The UN's Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

It has taken me a couple of weeks to begin to assimilate the news concerning the recent vote at the United Nations concerning a draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, the mixed reactions, and the uncertain outcomes.

First, it is important to note that the UN as such has not adopted the charter, yet. The declaration that was passed, which calls on states to grant a range of rights to indigenous communities around the globe, won 30 votes in the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, with 12 abstentions. It is still to go to a vote before the General Assembly.

Second, even if passed by the General Assembly, there is nothing to force member states, themselves some of the guiltiest parties in trampling on their indigenous communities, to adopt the declaration as law in their own countries. Speaking with The Washington Post, a representative of one of the current leading opponents to the draft declaration, Canada, stated the declaration would have "no legal effect" in his country, which in the past seemed to rally in support of the declaration. Indeed, Canada's representative, along with that of the Russian Federation, voted against the declaration. According to a Reuters report from June 29, 2006:

"Canada argued that several of the articles would violate the national constitution or even prevent the country's armed forces from taking measures necessary for its defense. Indigenous coalition representatives say they believe the big power opposition was largely driven by concern over the potential loss of state control over how natural resources, like oil, gas and timber, are exploited."

Canada had asked for a three-month delay for the vote, without a clear indication as to how the further delay, after two decades of debate, would resolve the Canadian government's "concerns." Readers can obtain some of the official documents, and recorded reactions of state delegates to the Human Rights Council, by following this link.

Third, it is not at all clear that either the passage or obstruction of the declaration was, is, or might be of universal interest and relevance to all indigenous communities. Besides the "disconnect" that sometimes obtains between indigenous delegates to the UN and members of communities back home, the often obscure and formalistic language of the documents produced at the UN, there is also extreme suspicion in some quarters that the UN, as a body, is a neo-colonial pontoon supporting the interests of imperial states (e.g., Canada, Russia, the USA, Australia). In this regard, writers for the Mohawk Nation News provide one example of some very staunch criticism of the elitism and imperialism embodied in UN efforts to control, contain and overtly assuage indigenous populations with watered-down and non-binding declarations.

At the end of it all, even assuming the declaration passes a vote at the General Assembly in September, it is not clear what will have been won, who will have won, and what practical effect will be had by its passage. On the other hand, I am sure most will agree that the debates that transpired over the past two decades were at least better than complete silence.

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