Saturday, September 15, 2007
Friday, September 14, 2007
STABROEK NEWS, Georgetown, Guyana
Guyana was among 143 UN member states which voted in favour of adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday.
Contacted on Guyana's voting, Director General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Elisabeth Harper said Guyana voted in favour of the declaration, which had the backing of other Caricom countries.
Two non-governmental organizations with large indigenous peoples membership - the Amerindian People's Association (APA) and the Guyanese Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP) - had called on the government to support the declaration on the occasion of World Indigenous People's Day observed on August 9.
At the time the government had expressed some reservations and urged a redraft of some sections including a definition of who could be considered an indigenous person. The Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana (TAAMOG) had supported the government's position on a redraft.
Guyana's indigenous people account for some 10 per cent of the population. A Reuters report yesterday said that under negotiation for 20 years, the document says that indigenous people, whose number has been put at 270 million worldwide as understood by the declaration, "have the right to self-determination."
One of its most controversial articles, according to Reuters, states that "indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired." That could potentially put in question most of the land ownership in countries, such as those that opposed the declaration, whose present population is largely descended from settlers who took over territory from previous inhabitants.
A balancing clause inserted at a late stage in the text says nothing in it can authorize or encourage "any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity" of states, Reuters noted.
That was not good enough for the four objectors, notably Canada, where the issue has become a political football. Many of Canada's 1 million aboriginal and Inuit people live in overcrowded, unsanitary housing and suffer high rates of unemployment, substance abuse and suicide.
"The provisions in the declaration on lands, territories and resources are overly broad, unclear, and capable of a wide variety of interpretations," Canada's U.N. Ambassador John McNee told the General Assembly, according to Reuters.
That stance was attacked by Canada's left-leaning opposition New Democrats. "It's very disappointing. I think it's cowardly and very un-Canadian ... we pride ourselves on being advocates for human rights," legislator Jean Crowder told Reuters.
U.S. delegate Robert Hagen said the U.N. Human Rights Council, which prepared the text, had not sought consensus. "This declaration was adopted ... in a splintered vote. This process was unfortunate and extraordinary," he said.
A release from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples issued yesterday said that 143 of the 192-member body voted in favour of the declaration; four voted against; and eleven abstained.
Those voting against were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Those abstaining were Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine.
The declaration, which outlines the rights of the world's estimated 370 million indigenous people and outlaws discrimination against them, has been in the making for over 22 years with several drafts written and rewritten.
The declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples. These include their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. It emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations. It also prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them, and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.
A release from the Indigenous Peoples Caucus said the declaration represents a significant recognition of the basic rights and fundamental freedoms of the world's indigenous peoples who belong to more than 5,000 distinct nations and groups around the world. It encourages harmonious and cooperative relations between nation states and indigenous peoples and recognises a wide array of rights specific to indigenous peoples around the globe.
The release noted that indigenous peoples continue to suffer human rights abuses such as forced relocation and assimilation; seizure and exploitation of their lands, territories and natural resources; discrimination and a disproportionate amount of poverty. It said that indigenous languages, cultures and ways of life continue to be threatened without international legal protection.
A UN press release issued after the vote quoted General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour as welcoming the adoption of the declaration.
Sheikha Haya said "The importance of this document for indigenous peoples and, more broadly, for the human rights agenda, cannot be underestimated. By adopting the declaration, we are also taking another major step forward towards the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all."
But she warned that "even with this progress, indigenous people still face marginalization, extreme poverty and other human rights violations. They are often dragged into conflicts and land disputes that threaten their way of life and very survival; and, suffer from a lack of access to health care and education."
In a statement released by his spokesperson, Ban described the declaration's adoption as "a historic moment when UN Member States and indigenous peoples have reconciled with their painful histories and are resolved to move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all."
He called on governments and civil society to ensure that the declaration's vision becomes a reality by working to integrate indigenous rights into their policies and programmes.
Arbour noted that the declaration has been "a long time coming. But the hard work and perseverance of indigenous peoples and their friends and supporters in the international community have finally borne fruit in the most comprehensive statement to date of indigenous peoples' rights."
The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues estimates there are more than 370 million indigenous people in some 70 countries worldwide. Members of the forum said earlier this year that the declaration creates no new rights and does not place indigenous peoples in a special category.
"This declaration is the least that could be approved to give us all instruments recognizing the existence of indigenous people," Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, himself indigenous, told the General Assembly, according to Reuters.
"It is an important step for indigenous people to do away with discrimination, to strengthen the identity, to recognize our right to land and natural resources, to be consulted, to participate in decisions," the minister said.
Most U.S. allies, including Britain and Japan, also voted for the declaration, saying last minute amendments had made it acceptable, given that it did not have the force of international law.
Canada, along with other settler states (the United States, Australia, and New Zealand) has "distinguished" itself internationally for voting against a non-binding document which would not have become law in Canada, a dogged insistence on attacking the symbolic value of a document masking what is probably the Canadian government's support for transnational corporations appropriating indigenous resources worldwide. For more on Canada's failure to live up to its much vaunted claims of being a moral leader in the world, see "Canada votes 'no' as UN native rights declaration passes" in the CBC news. You can also download a video of the news story by clicking here, as well as a video of CBC's interview with Canada's Minister for Indian Affairs. Also on the CBC: "Northern leaders slam Canada's rejection of UN native rights declaration."
UN Declarations are generally not legally binding; however, they represent the dynamic development of international legal norms and reflect the commitment of states to move in certain directions, abiding by certain principles. This is the case for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well. The Declaration is expected to have a major effect on the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. If adopted, it will establish an important standard for the treatment of indigenous peoples and will undoubtedly be a significant tool towards eliminating human rights violations against the over 370 million indigenous people worldwide and assist them in combating discrimination and marginalization.
Seventeen of the forty-five articles of the Declaration deal with indigenous culture and how to protect and promote it, by respecting the direct input of indigenous peoples in decision-making, and allowing for resources, such as those for education in indigenous languages and other areas.
The Declaration confirms the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination and recognizes subsistence rights and rights to lands, territories and resources.
The Declaration recognizes that indigenous peoples deprived of their means of subsistence and development are entitled to just and fair redress.
Essentially, the Declaration outlaws discrimination against indigenous peoples, promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them, as well as their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.
The Declaration addresses both individual and collective rights, cultural rights and identity, rights to education, health, employment, language, and others. The text says indigenous peoples have the right to fully enjoy as a collective or as individuals, all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law. Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity.
Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By that right they can freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. They have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they choose to, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the state.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
For more information on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as recent press releases, news, and upcoming events, see:
General Assembly to Take Action on Declaration on Indigenous Rights
WHEN: Thursday 13 September, 10:00am (NOTE: Session starts at 10:00am, Declaration is Item 6 on the Agenda)
WHERE: General Assembly Hall, UN Headquarters, First Avenue & 46th Street
*** A MEDIA STAKEOUT WILL BE LOCATED IN THE EAST FOYER OUTSIDE THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY DURING AND AFTER THE CONSIDERATION ***
§ After more than two decades of fruitful dialogue at the United Nations among Member States, with extraordinary participation of indigenous peoples from around the world, the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the Human Rights Council in June 2006. It was then forwarded to the General Assembly, which in December 2006 deferred consideration of the Declaration to allow further consultations during its 61st Session.
§ These consultations have now come to fruition and the Assembly is expected to adopt the Declaration on Thursday 13 September.
§ The Declaration addresses both individual and collective rights, cultural rights and identity, rights to education, health, employment, language and others. It outlaws discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them. It also ensures their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic, social and cultural development. The Declaration explicitly encourages harmonious and cooperative relations between States and Indigenous Peoples.
§ To view a recent press conference by indigenous leaders (Thursday 6 September) regarding the adoption of the Declaration, see http://www.un.org/webcast/pc2007.htm
MEDIA ARRANGEMENTS: Journalists without UN accreditation who wish to attend the event should follow the instructions for obtaining accreditation at www.un.org/media/accreditation. All journalists, once accredited, who wish to film within the General Assembly Hall must report to the Office of Media Accreditation and Liaison, Room S-250A in the UN Secretariat building beforehand and an officer will escort them to the media booths.
The General Assembly session will be webcast live on www.un.org/webcast