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Statement by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, on 5th anniversary of UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples

High-level commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

17 May 2012, New York

Excellencies,
Esteemed representatives of indigenous peoples,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to join you in celebrating the first five years of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

Since its adoption, the Declaration has been met with great enthusiasm by indigenous peoples and others committed to advancing human rights all over the world. It has been called “a triumph for justice and human dignity”, a “historic opportunity”, and a document giving rise to great expectations “which should not and must not be betrayed”.

Why such excitement? What sets this Declaration apart from those international texts and declarations that remain largely unknown and unused outside the walls of the international organizations that created them?

The answer lies, I believe, in both the drafting process and content of the Declaration.

First, the process:  It was long -- lasting more than 20 years -- but it was truly inclusive. The Declaration was not imposed or dictated by anyone:  indigenous peoples and State representatives built it together. This partnership created broad ownership of the results. As Les Malezer, the then-Chair of the Global Indigenous Caucus said at the time of the adoption “the Declaration does not represent solely the viewpoint of the United Nations, nor does it represent solely the viewpoint of the Indigenous Peoples. It is a Declaration which combines our views and interests and which sets the framework for the future.” True, there were some doubters, but now also those Member States that voted against the Declaration back in 2007 have endorsed it.

Second, the content of the Declaration:  While built on non-discrimination and other binding human rights standards, the Declaration provides significantly more details in areas that are essential to the dignity and survival of indigenous peoples. Through a combination of individual and collective rights, the Declaration provides crucial guarantees against relocation of indigenous peoples from their lands without their free, prior and informed consent, against forced assimilation and against exclusion from decision-making, while requiring support for indigenous peoples’ own educational institutions and decision-making structures as well as protection of their cultural heritage. I could go on.

The enthusiasm is, therefore, well merited.

Yet, even as we celebrate the accomplishment that is the Declaration, we must also remember that for most indigenous peoples, the reality has nothing to do with these laudable standards.  As the High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated, “it is one thing to have proclaimed the Declaration, and it is quite another to see it implemented”.  While the Declaration has inspired a number of promising new initiatives ranging from consultative structure to laws devoted to indigenous peoples, overall indigenous peoples in all regions of the world remain amongst the most marginalized and impoverished, frequently victims of discrimination and excluded from decision-making. Land grabs and ever-increasing dispossession of ancestral lands, territories and resources threatens their cultural and physical integrity, with indigenous women often the first ones to suffer. 

Many indigenous representatives in this hall today will continue to witness and experience such human rights violations. Everyone in this hall should work actively to combat them.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accompanied and supported the process of drafting the Declaration. We are now equally committed, together with the mechanisms established by the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to accompanying and supporting efforts to fill the implementation gaps that remain wide and frequent. This is not only our intention but an obligation under Article 42 of the Declaration.

We must do this in the same spirit of partnership that gave birth to the Declaration, ensuring that indigenous peoples have not only a voice but true influence in the decision-making. We need to live up to the motto ‘nothing about us without us’. This must be the case at the national level but also in international processes, and good examples of this -- ranging from the work of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to the United Nations Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership -- need to be expanded and replicated. This spirit of partnership must also be built into the preparation and content of the forthcoming World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014.

Ladies and gentlemen,
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a remarkable document, the global expression of the rights of indigenous peoples. It is also our shared tool. We should put it to a maximum use.

Today we should certainly commemorate the achievements made so far but we should also look at the many challenges ahead. It is thus important to use this 5th anniversary to renew our commitment to the implementation of the Declaration so that in five years when we gather to mark the 10th anniversary we may celebrate the increased impact that it has had in the daily lives of indigenous peoples around the world.  Let us breathe life into this Declaration and carry it forward into a new era of hope and justice for indigenous peoples throughout the world.

Thank you.