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Indigenous rights declaration endorsed by States

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has received universal backing from the international community, with the United States being the last UN Member State to endorse it.

Indigenous participants at a UN meeting © UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré By adopting the Declaration, States have committed to recognizing indigenous peoples rights under international law, with the right to be respected as distinct peoples and the right to determine their own development according to their culture, priorities, and customary laws.

The Declaration further affirms that Governments shall consult indigenous peoples with a view to obtaining their free, prior and informed consent prior to approval of any project affecting their lands, any potential displacement and relocation of populations, and adoption or implementation of administrative or legislative measures which may affect them.

The United States was one of the only four countries which had voted against the Declaration when it was submitted for adoption at the General Assembly in 2007 - Australia, Canada and New Zealand were the other three opponents. Since then, these three countries have endorsed the Declaration and expressed their own understanding on certain aspects of the text.

While endorsing the Declaration, the United States has expressed its own understanding of the right to self determination, and on free, prior and informed consent.

The endorsement has sparked many reactions among indigenous rights circles globally. Tonya Gonnella Frichner, North American Regional Representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), expressed her satisfaction at the United States’ official support of the Declaration.

“It is now coming on board with the community of nations that adopted it at the General Assembly in 2007”, she said. “We are counting on the good will of the United States which would mean that the U.S. would move forward, without restrictions, in a positive way implementing the Declaration as it was adopted, by the United Nations.”

Myrna Cunningham, from the Miskitu people of Waspam in Nicaragua, and a newly appointed UNPFII member is hopeful the endorsement would strengthen respect for indigenous peoples. “The Declaration not only constitutes an international standard with regards to indigenous peoples’ issues, but it also sets an agenda. Thus, if duly taken into consideration, US endorsement of the Declaration would result in a stronger respect for indigenous peoples and in the implementation of specific measures to ensure their full participation in projects that may affect them.”

Jannie Lasimbang, from the Sabah community of Malaysia said that for indigenous peoples of Asia, the endorsement by the US would be an added reason for governments to recognise indigenous peoples in their respective countries.

“It will also emphasize the need to put the Declaration into action, in particular, aspects that will assert the rights of indigenous peoples”, she added.  “President Obama in his remarks accords Native Americans the recognition they deserve and the need to learn from history in order to move forward and addressed many aspects related to indigenous peoples' self-determination.”

The Declaration is now among the most widely accepted UN human rights instruments.  It is the most comprehensive statement addressing the human rights of indigenous peoples to date, establishing collective rights and minimum standards on survival, dignity, and wellbeing to a greater extent than any other international text.

While such recognition exists in some national laws, some of the Declaration’s provisions have yet to be respected. This is a particular concern for Mr. Kanyinke Sena, an indigenous Ogiek from Kenya.

“Given the USA global presence and influence, this new policy shift gives indigenous peoples globally a new ally, with the much needed political, social and economic muscle, with whom they will together hold hands in the onward march towards the recognition, respect and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples on the basis of the Declaration.”

23 December 2010