Indigenous Peoples Gain U.S., U.N. Recognition


Thalif Deen, IPS

Date of publication: 
28 December 2010

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 28, 2010 (IPS) – As 2010 draws to a close, both the United States and the United Nations have reached out to one of the world’s most marginalised groups in society: indigenous peoples.

The 192-member General Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution last week calling for a first-ever World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to be held in 2014.

The primary aim is to protect the long-ignored rights – and preserve the fast-fading cultures – of over 370 million people, who comprise about 5 percent of the world’s population and about 15 percent of the world’s poor, according to the United Nations.

The preparatory work for the conference, which will include the drafting of an elaborate Plan of Action, will be spread over a period of three years beginning 2011.

Coincidentally, the United States in mid-December broke new ground when President Barack Obama, speaking at the opening of the White House Tribal Nations Conference, announced U.S. recognition for a 2007 landmark U.N. treaty outlining the rights of the indigenous peoples.

The announcement was made when Obama met with leaders from the 565 federally recognised tribes in the United States.

Along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the United States was only one of four countries that voted against the ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ when it was adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007.

The Declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health and education.

With its announcement of support for the Declaration, the United States has now joined the other three countries in endorsing the international treaty.

Asked what role indigenous peoples should play in the run-up to conference, Christina Chauvenet of Survival International USA (SIUSA) told IPS: “Of course indigenous peoples must be involved in all international processes which might affect them, but indigenous peoples’ problems won’t be solved by conferences”.

Chauvenet said their future would only be secure when governments recognise that they have rights, especially to their land, which should be protected.

While commending the universal support for the UN Declaration, she pointed out that “the problem is getting them to abide by their commitments”.

“This will only be achieved if enough people around the world support tribal people in their struggles, and make governments understand that real action is required, not words or conference resolutions,” Chauvenet added.

Sarah H. Paoletti, Practice Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Transnational Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told IPS while the proposed conference is significant -in that it recognizes the need to address the rights of indigenous peoples in terms of international human rights standards – “its real significance will be measured by the outcomes, and the concrete measures to ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples are addressed in an inclusive and meaningful fashion”.

Paoletti said indigenous peoples must play a key role in the preparatory work towards the conference to ensure their voices are fully incorporated in the planning, and ultimately, in the outcomes sought from the conference.

As with the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), where civil society and particularly migrant workers are marginalised to ‘Civil Society Days’ held separate from the Global Forum, and access to the intergovernmental discussions is heavily restricted, “we have seen little in the way of proposed solutions emerging from the GFMD that has had a direct and positive impact on advancing the rights of migrants and particularly migrant workers across the globe,” she said.

As with any work aimed at improving the rights of a group of people(s), it is those most directly affected that are in the best position to articulate the problems and propose the solutions, said Paoletti, who is also the senior coordinator for the U.S. Human Rights Network Universal Periodic Review Project.

In addressing the rights of indigenous groups, she said, it also critical to recognise they do not speak with one voice, but with multiple voices. “It is not a monolithic population, and cannot and should not be treated as such.”

Therefore, steps should be taken to ensure open, inclusive and transparent participation on the part of indigenous peoples throughout the preparatory work and beyond, Paoletti declared.

In a statement released here, SIUSA said that across the globe “indigenous peoples have been marginalized, dispossessed and discriminated against, with devastating consequences”.

In the United States, a native American is 62 percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population and 600 times more likely to contract tuberculosis, according to U.N. figures.

Paoletti said the Obama Administration’s endorsement of the U.N. Declaration marks an important shift in the U.S. government’s position on the rights of indigenous peoples specifically, and on engaging with the international community on the advancement of human rights more generally.

But, as indicated by President Obama, “what matters more is what actions the U.S. Administration takes to advance the rights contained in the Declaration, both for indigenous peoples in the United States, as well as indigenous peoples across the globe”.

The United States can only reclaim its moral authority in the advancement of human rights globally if it takes concrete and affirmative measures to first improve its human rights record at home, she added.

Tess Thackara, U.S. coordinator for SIUSA, said the U.N. Declaration sets a benchmark against which the treatment of tribal peoples can be judged and it is an important instrument in eradicating abuse of tribal peoples.

Despite its value, she pointed out, the Declaration remains aspirational, because it is not legally binding.

Meanwhile, SIUSA is campaigning for all countries to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention 169 on tribal peoples – the only international instrument for tribal peoples that is legally binding.

To date only 22 countries have ratified ILO 169.