World Reaction to the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights

In every society in which they find themselves, the world's 370 million indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable and marginalized.

After over 22 years of negotiations and consultations, the United Nations approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples earlier this month, a broad, non-binding agreement articulating basic individual and communal rights to cultural self-preservation, self-determination and natural resources.

The Declaration sparked conversations in blogospheres around the world about the situation of indigenous people today, the Declaration's value and limits, as well as harsh condemnation of the four member countries that voted against: Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

K sums up the main provisions of the Declaration:

la Declaración consta de 46 artículos y establece parámetros mínimos de respeto a los derechos de los pueblos indígenas, que incluyen propiedad de la tierra, acceso a los recursos naturales de los territorios donde se asientan, respeto y preservación de sus tradiciones y autodeterminación…El texto también hace hincapié en la importancia de la educación bilingüe y alude a la implementación de medidas especiales para asegurar el mejoramiento continuo de las condiciones económicas y sociales de los ancianos, mujeres y menores, en particular. La Declaración no es jurídicamente vinculante, pero representa un instrumento dinámico en las normas internacionales, que ayudaría a proteger a los indígenas contra la discriminación y marginación.

The Declaration consists of 46 articles and establishes minimum parameters for respecting the rights of indigenous peoples, including land ownership, access to the natural resources in the lands where they live, respect and preservation of their traditions and self-determination…The text also stresses the importance of bilingual education and alludes to the implementation of special measures to ensure continual improvement of the economic conditions of the elderly, women and children in particular. The Declaration is not legally binding, but it represents a dynamic instrument of international norms that will help to protect indigenous peoples from discrimination and marginalization

On the plight of indigenous people around the world

Democracia Multicultural:

Los pueblos indígenas afirman que sus tierras y territorios están siendo amenazados por la minería, tala, contaminación ambiental, proyectos de privatización y desarrollo, las designaciones de tierras como áreas protegidas o reservas y el uso de semillas genéticamente modificadas, entre otros.

Indigenous peoples say that their lands and territories are being threated by mining, logging, environmental contamination, development and privatization projects, the designation of land as reserved or protected areas, and the use of genetically modified seeds, among others.

Kenya Environmental & Political News Weblog writes that in Kenya, the Maasai and Ogiekrg face serious social problems that “stemmed mostly from eviction from their ancestral land and being denied the right to continue living in forests as their forefathers.”

Ever since colonial times, most of what used to be Maasai land has been taken over, for private farms and ranches, for government projects or for wildlife parks. Mostly they retain only the most arid and least fertile areas. The stress this causes to their herds has often been aggravated by attempts made by government of Kenya and Tanzania to ‘develop’ the Maasai.

Similarly, since colonial times, there have been persistent attempts to evict the Ogiek from their ancestral forest, usually on the pretext that they are degrading it. But when the Ogiek are removed, their forest is not protected but rather exploited by logging and tea plantations – some owned by government officials. In some parts of the Mau forest, groups of Ogiek are now resisting eviction, while in others they face influxes of settlers onto their land. The most serious threat currently facing them all comes from the government’s plan to open up around one tenth of Kenya’s forests – most of it in the Mau forest – to outsiders.

Censored News posts a statement by civil society organizations on the conditions of indigenous peoples elsewhere in Africa:

au moment ou des milliers de Batwa dans la région des grands lacs sont affectés par des guerres dont ils ne connaissent pas les raisons, des familles de San sont expropries de leur terre par des fermiers et des parks nationaux. Les forets qui constituent les ressources de survie des autochtones (Baka, Bageli, Batwa, endoroi, Massai, Ogiek, M’barabek …etc.) d’Afrique centrale et de l’Est sont détruites, le peuple touareg entre l’Afrique du Nord et de l’Ouest est pris dans le feu d’un conflit d’intérêt d’exploitation de ressources naturelles et géopolitiques des Etats

Currently, thousands of Batwa in the Great Lakes Region are affected by wars whose purpose they do not know, the lands of San families are expropriated by small farmers and national parks. Forests, upon which indigenous peoples (Baka, Bageli, Batwa, Endoroi, Maasai, Ogiek, M'barabek, etc.) rely for their survival are being destroyed in Central and Eastern Africa. The Touareg people between North and West Africa are in the grips of a conflict of interest over the exploitation of natural resources and the geopolitics of states.

Citing a World Bank report, Pepitorias writes that in many countries in Latin America, 75-90% of indigenous peoples live in poverty and that indigenous peoples are more vulnerable to global warming and natural disasters.

Settler states vote “No”

The passage of the Declaration was heralded as an historic milestone by indigenous groups, but many bloggers were highly critical of four “settler states” that voted against it: Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Although legally non-binding, many of the document's provisions were controversial, according to Democracia Multicultural (es), including one ensuring that indigenous land cannot be “sin el consentimiento libre, previo e informado de los pueblos indígenas interesados, ni sin un acuerdo previo sobre una indemnización justa y equitativa” and another requiring restitution or just compensation for confiscated lands.

Wampum observes that states which voted against the Declaration were all former colonies of England in the Americas and the South Pacific, and that the states most active in promoting it were former colonies of Spain and Portugal in the Americas.

The MySpace blog save the sacred sites (via Angry Indian)

I have prayed many times that the world would recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples. I knew that the US & Canada and of coarse Australia, who have done to the Aborigines what the US & Canada have done to Natives, would vote no. The big surprise to me was that Mexico, with their horrible treatment of Indigenous People there, wasn't the 5th country voting against the UN resolution for Indigenous rights. Another amazing thing to me is that even the countries who decimated the Native populations on the Caribbean Islands voted for it. The world is changing. And the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand had better catch up.

La Tribu du Verbe posts a video of a demonstration in Montreal organized by Femmes Autochtones du Quebec and writes about Canada's opposition to the Declaration:

Mais voilà que depuis l’entrée des conservateurs au pouvoir en janvier 2006, le Canada est devenu un farouche opposant à cette déclaration. Dernièrement, à quelques semaines du vote final pour l’adoption de la déclaration, le Canada, appuyé par l’Australie, la Nouvelle-Zélande, la Russie, la Colombie, la Guyane et le Surinam, a demandé de reprendre les négociations, manoeuvre qui a pour but de paralyser l’adoption de la déclaration.

See how since conservatives’ arrival in power in January 2006, Canada has become a voice in the wilderness opposing this Delcaration. Near the end, a few weeks away from the final vote to adopt the Declaration, Canada, supported by Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Colombia, Guyane and Suriname demanded further negotiations, a manoeuvre whose goal was to paralyze the adoption of the Declaration.

The CAC Review calls the vote against the Declaration by these four “settler states” a “serious tactical error” that will not diminish the Declaration's symbolic value:

To be seen to act against the contents of the Declaration will be equated with acting against international public opinion. What stands out is not that “the liberal democracies with the most intense engagements with indigenous issues” voted against the Declaration, as some have said, since many other countries, with larger indigenous populations, and arguably more intense engagements, voted for it. What stands out instead is how settler states are still in the process of trying to settle themselves, how much “engagement” has really been disengagement, distance, friction, and conflict, and how much wishful thinking plays a part in reigning fantasies that, one day, Europe Part 2, will be as embedded in its foreign soil as Original Europe can claim to be on its soil.

The vote against the Declaration was a serious tactical error: these four states now sorely stand out as colonial, white states, anachronistic entitites in a world where “decolonization” has become part of the international vocabulary. They have also handed the Chinas of the world a powerful argument–that they too flout the will of “the international community,” that they too do not recognize the rights of disadvantaged minorities, and that liberal democracy is really little more than kleptocracy. If accepting the Declaration could have been symbolically binding (even if not legally so), then surely rejecting the Declaration will also come at a political cost. Some of us will see to it that it does.

soup is good food, the blog of a Canadian political science student, writes that even non-binding declarations can turn into political liabilities for governments unfriendly to native issues:

some might point out that the declaration is non-binding. The Canadian government could have easily signed it to look good and then ignored it like we do with other declarations. I wouldn't use this excuse.

I think the Harper government knows exactly how dangerous declarations can be.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is/was non-binding. Now many parts of it are customary international law. It's not perfect and violations still occur, but it's there. It's a global rallying point for change and justice. And that's something.

Politicians have learned from this “mistake” of allowing non-binding seemingly harmless feel-good declarations in. It eventually causes problems. Which is why we now have four powerful countries with ongoing histories of disgusting abuses against indigenous populations having temper tantrums over the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Because heaven forbid we should sign onto something that would oblige us to do the right thing.

What impact will the Declaration have?

In Martinique, le blog de [moi] predicts the declaration may prompt new rumblings from pro-independence elements.

Martinique is an overseas department of France, which had long opposed the Declaration on a “principal of the indivisibility of the Republic” and its refusal to recognize communal rights. France changed its position under former president Jacques Chirac, who was personally interested in “first peoples.”

indigenouspeoplecongobrazza (Fr) writes that although the Declaration, and in particular the sections pertaining to the use of land and natural resources and the principle of informed consent, might appear to be a victory for pygmies in Congo, “the absence of national legislation regarding indigenous peoples and the low level of education among most indigenous peoples” will remain major barriers to their benefiting from the Declaration.

Criticisms of the Declaration

Polysocial (es) notes that the Declaration was amended at the last minute, without input from an indigenous groups, after an agreement was struck between its cosponsors, a group of African and Latin American countries, including Peru, Guatemala and Mexico to include a clause which states the intention of the Declaration is not to authorize or stir any action threatening the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign states.

Many Central and South American organizations demonstrated against these amendments, Polysocial writes, believing that the Declaration “had suffered changes that diminished its content…in the spirit of debilitating and restricting its scope.”

In a comment on le blog de [moi], WK, a reader, writes:

il y a quelque chose qui me heurte profondément dans cette déclaration c’est que j’y trouve une sorte d’abdication à créer des sociétés multiculturelles et un encouragement à des replis identitaires. Par ailleurs, une déclaration aussi globale me paraît mal venue dans le sens ou elle est tellement vague qu’elle pourra rester lettre morte alors qu’il y a bien urgence dans certaines cas, je pense par exemple à l’Alaska où des ressources et des modes de vie sont menacées par l’avidité des compagnies pétrolières.

Something that really struck me about this declaration is that I find it in a sort of rejection of the idea of creating multicultural societies and an encouragement of identity politics. Additionally, a declaration this global seems to me unwelcome in the sense that it is really vague and will stay a dead letter, even as there is a real urgency in certain cases, for example in Alaska where resources and ways of life are threatened by the of oil companies.

One Japanese blogger voices concern about how indigenous peoples are defined. The UN has long relied on self-definition and purposely vague standards.

気になるのは、用語に関することです。宣言の英語表記ては「indigenous peoples」の諸権利に関する宣言となっていて、nationでもethnic groupでもありません。朝日も産経も記事の見出しは「先住民」ですが、本文では「先住民族」と「先住民」を併用しています。不統一で、あいまいです。

What concerns me is something about the terminology that is used. The English version of the declaration is a declaration about the rights of “indigenous peoples”, and there is no mention of “nation” or “ethnic group”. In the headlines of articles in Asahi and Sankei
[newspapers], there is the word “先住民” [senjuumin, literally “former inhabitant”], but in the original text they interchangeably use both “先住民族” [senjuuminzoku, “indigenous people”] and “先住民” [senjuumin]. This usage is inconsistent and ambiguous.

The blogger also writes that Japan is not the homogeneous society it claims to be:


In Japan it is often said that there is only one language, only one people, and so on, but if you look more closely, you see that a
pluralistic, diversified culture has been passed down [for generations]. Most clearly demonstrative of this cultural pluralism and diversity is the variety of shrine festivals of the so-called ethnic religions. Of the things that have been passed down from the fire festivals of the Jomon period, we even have, in the territory around the Ise Shrine, the practice of a form of rice planting common to the culture of upland farming and agriculture in southeast asian [countries].

And explains the role of semantic issues in the Ainu people's campaign for cultural rights, and the influence of the declaration:


If the term “民族” [Minzoku] is used, then it becomes [associated with] “民族自決” [minzoku jiketsu, “self-determination of peoples”], or “独立”
[dokuritsu, (political) independence]. In Japan, for example, with respect to the Ainu people, the government does not recognize the
[term] “senjuu minzoku”. Kayano Shigeru made great efforts, and ten years ago when the “Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture” (jp) was established, the expression “アイヌの人々” [Ainu people] was used. However, when the interpretation used in the current [declaration] was received by the Hokkaido Utari Asssociation, who had been campaigning for [the expression] “establishment of the dignity of the Ainu People” [アイヌ民族の尊厳確立, “Ainu minzoku no songen kakuritsu”], they immediately [responded by] declaring: “We demand that we be recognized as indigenous people.”

Japanese translations by Chris Salzberg.


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