Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More Frustration at the UN

U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples meets with stiff resistance
May 25, 2007
International Herald Tribune

UNITED NATIONS: Members of a U.N. forum on indigenous peoples expressed frustration with delays and amendments to a proposed declaration on the rights of native peoples, as the two-week conference ended Friday.

Members of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues urged the U.N. General Assembly to ratify the declaration, which would ensure "the survival and dignity of indigenous peoples," a key member of the forum said Thursday.

The proposed U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the Human Rights Council in Geneva last June. In December, the General Assembly voted to defer adoption but pledged to consider it before the end of its current session in September.

The declaration took center stage at the forum, though it was officially devoted to discussing concerns about access to and use of land, territory and natural resources. The forum drew 1,500 representatives of indigenous peoples, 30 indigenous parliamentarians, and representatives of 70 member states.

The declaration calls on states to prevent or redress the forced migration of indigenous peoples, seizures of their land or their forced integration into other cultures. It also grants indigenous groups control over their religious and cultural sites and the right to manage their own education systems, including teaching in their own languages.

Wilton Littlechild, a member of the indigenous issues forum for over 20 years, criticized countries for proposing changes to the declaration at the last minute and refusing to ratify a document that would explicitly extend human rights to indigenous people.

"We were left out of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights," Littlechild said. "How can you object to basic fundamental human rights that everyone else has?"

Littlechild specifically criticized the General Assembly's African Group for submitting substantial amendments to the document on the grounds that the situation for indigenous Africans is different from elsewhere.

"It's very, very offensive to me, as an individual who worked very, very hard — as I said 30 years — on this, to have someone come in ... a minute to midnight, and start making changes, after they've had every opportunity to participate," Littlechild said of the African proposals.

A statement issued by the members of forum said the African nations' suggested declaration "dilutes considerably and in some cases, outright denies, the rights outlined in the declaration."

The statement goes on to say the proposal is "unacceptable and inconsistent with international human rights law."

Gabon, which currently heads the African Group, rejected this characterization, noting that the document does not recognize that the situation of indigenous people in Africa is different.

"I don't think Africa's indigenous peoples need self-determination," said Franklin Makanga, a counselor at the Gabon mission, referring to one of the articles of the declaration. "They're citizens of states."

Makanga also objected to a provision that would prohibit states from using indigenous land for military purposes without their consent.

"How can you forbid a state to undertake anything on its own territory?" he asked.

The members of the forum also accused the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand of lobbying the African states to vote against the declaration.

Carolyn Vadino, a spokeswoman at the U.S. mission, said the United States is committed to work toward a "text that's meaningful, that's a workable document and is capable of being implemented."

"We haven't seen that yet," she added.

Patricia Valladao, a spokeswoman in the Canadian Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, agreed that changes would need to be made to the text before Canada could support the declaration.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chairwoman of the forum, stressed that the declaration is simply a tool for interpreting the U.N.'s Universal Declaration on Human Rights as it applies to indigenous peoples.

It is "not a document, a declaration, that creates new rights," she said.

Littlechild said he was especially disappointed in states that ratified the document in the Human Rights Council but are now resisting its adoption in the General Assembly. Many of the declaration's critics, he said, have been involved in its development for a number of years.

"I am a little bit baffled when I hear resistance like that because they were at the table with me for 24 years," he said.

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