UN declines vote on the rights of indigenous peoples
Called Indians, First Peoples, Aborigines, Eskimos, or the names they call themselves - Wampanoag, Pokomam, Batwa, or MakMak - indigenous peoples are among the poorest and most marginalized peoples on our planet today. Living in over 70 countries, they have their own cultures, languages, and unique connections to their lands.
Historically, genocide, disease, and forced assimilation destroyed indigenous peoples. Today their ways-of-life fall victim to national and international resource extactors, poorly considered development policies, and other aspects of economic globalization. Under the pretext that their cultures, which often differ radically from those of the dominant populations, are barriers to development, indigenous peoples are easy targets for discrimination and wholesale theft of their lands and resources.
If anyone on this planet needs international protection for their human rights, it is the indigenous. In 1982, indigenous leaders successfully appealed to the United Nations to form a working group to consider the human rights of indigenous peoples. The working group, which included states' representatives and indigenous organizations, spent the next 24 years wrestling over the concepts and language of a draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The text, which finally was presented to the new Human Rights Council last spring, includes indigenous peoples' rights to their traditional collective lands and resources, languages, religions, and cultures. Despite ardent objections by a handful of states, most notably the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the Human Rights Council adopted the declaration by a wide margin and forwarded it to the General Assembly for final approval.
Given the Human Rights Council's strong endorsement, approval should have been a matter of course at Tuesday's meeting of the General Assembly's Third Committee. But over the course of the fall, the declaration's opponents lobbied small states to vote against it. That effort paid off when Namibia presented a procedural amendment calling for a delay in voting on the declaration until the end of the current session of the General Assembly. That amendment, which was backed by the entire bloc of African states, passed by a vote of 82 to 67 with 25 abstentions.
Packaged as a mere delay, the vote received no press coverage or wider attention. In fact, the tactic was designed to kill the declaration. No regular sessions of the General Assembly are scheduled after mid-December, and there is no budget authorized for a special session. Moreover, there is nothing in the resolution that would ensure indigenous peoples' participation in the committee's deliberations.
Why was the declaration shot down? At least some African states are concerned that it does not define "indigenous" and that it supports "self-determination" for indigenous peoples. Those states take the view that all Africans are indigenous, and that self-determination - one of the key points of the declaration - only applies to nations trying to free themselves from the yoke of colonialism. While fair concerns, the declaration, which is not legally binding, is clear that the meaning of these terms must be defined in context and negotiated between indigenous peoples and the state in which they live.
But the real impetus behind the initiative came from the same very powerful states that have objected all along. What they don't like is the language in the declaration that gives indigenous peoples rights to their lands and resources, and ensures their free, prior, and informed consent before those rights are impeded upon.
After the vote, the mood in the office of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus was despondent. Some called it a deplorable setback. Others remarked that it was a huge insult to the newly established Human Rights Council. After 24 patient years of hard work and playing by the rules, they felt angry and humiliated.
This is a very sad time for the world's indigenous peoples. Once again, the governments of the world have made it clear that indigenous peoples' rights are not as important as the interests of the world's most powerful states. Shame on them!
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