Momentum slowly builds behind UN Indigenous Declaration


by Lucy-Claire Saunders, Xinhua –

Date of publication: 
19 May 2009

UNITED NATIONS — Indigenous peoples from around the world kicked off a two-week gathering at the United Nations on Monday to discuss the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP), which has gained momentum since last month when Australia reversed its earlier position and announced its endorsement.

“With Australia finally supporting the Declaration we have less countries fighting against it … and the more countries we get to support (the Declaration), the better it is for indigenous peoples,” chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Victoria Tauli-Corpuz told reporters during a press briefing.

Currently, only three countries remain formally opposed to DRIP— Canada, the United States and New Zealand. Tauli-Corpuz said she hoped Australia’s announcement would encourage the remaining countries to follow suit.

Indeed, on Sunday, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said his country would also consider reversing its previous position on the 2007 landmark Declaration, which recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights as human rights and emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to live in dignity.

Also, Tauli-Corpuz said she has been in contact with the U.S. administration about whether President Barak Obama would consider reversing Former President George W. Bush’s opposition to DRIP.

Canada, however, remained the primary subject during the press briefing. Representing Sweden, Forum member Lars Anders Baer called Canada’s opposition to DRIP “not a logical one” as the country is known to have “an advanced” policy regarding indigenous people.

In the past, the Canadian government has said it agreed with the spirit of the Declaration but that it ran contrary to the country’s constitutional framework because it trumpets rights of indigenous people over Canadians.

Tauli-Corpuz called Canada’s argument “invalid” because the Declaration is in line with international human rights standards and does not grant special rights to indigenous peoples.

She pointed out that Canada has been active in several international human rights declarations, such as the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and DRIP was in no way different.

On Monday, the forum kicked off with a special discussion on the relationship between indigenous peoples and industrial corporations. Extractive industries — gas, oil, and mineral extraction — disproportionately impact the world’s 400 million indigenous peoples, according to experts who met in the Philippines in March during a conference on extractive industries and indigenous peoples.

As it turns out, many of the indigenous peoples who attended that extractive industry workshop complained that Canadian companies were not respecting their rights, Tauli-Corpuz told Xinhua.

During the conference, participants called on Canada to establish “establish clear legal norms … to ensure that Canadian companies and residents are held accountable when there is evidence of environmental and/or human rights violations associated with the activities of Canadian mining companies,” according to a letter addressed to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

More attention needs to be focused on the “trans-boundary human rights obligations of countries which are hosting (extractive) corporations and creating all these problems for indigenous peoples,” Tauli-Corpuz told Xinhua.

In just one example, Canadian mining company Nautilus Mining Inc. is planning the first deep-sea mining expedition off the coast of Papa New Guinea. A small group of indigenous peoples there, the Bismarck-Solomon Seas Indigenous Peoples Council, has claimed they have not been fairly consulted for a project they saywill endanger their villages and destroy a rare ecosystem.

Tauli-Corpuz said that most of the remaining oil, gas and mineral resources “are now found in indigenous peoples’ territories because we have been struggling against these kinds of[mining] operations.”

This was fortunate as the resources are still in the ground, she said, but also a “curse” because “it brings all these unaccountable corporations to come and exploit it without the permission of indigenous people.”

Over 2,000 participants gathered at the UN conference on Monday, which concludes on May 29. Other issues on the Forum’s agenda include climate change, the Arctic region and land tenure.