UN General Assembly backs indigenous peoples' rights

The UN General Assembly on Thursday adopted a non-binding declaration upholding the human, land and resources rights of the world's 370 million indigenous people, brushing off opposition from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

UN General Assembly backs indigenous peoples' rights
The UN General Assembly on Thursday adopted a non-binding declaration upholding the human, land and resources rights of the world's 370 million indigenous people, brushing off opposition from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

The vote in the assembly was 143 in favor and four against. Eleven countries, including Russia and Colombia, abstained.

The declaration, capping more than 20 years of debate at the United Nations, also recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination and sets global human rights standards for them.

It states that native peoples have the right "to the recognition, observance and enforcement of treaties" concluded with states or their successors.

Indigenous peoples say their lands and territories are endangered by such threats as mineral extraction, logging, environmental contamination, privatization and development projects, classification of lands as protected areas or game reserves amd use of genetically modified seeds and technology.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the Philippine chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, joined UN chief Ban Ki-moon in hailing the vote.

"It marks a major victory for Indigenous peoples," said Tauli-Corpuz, adding that the document "sets the minimum international standards for the protection and promotion of the rights" of native peoples.

But Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, countries with sizable indigenous populations, expressed disappointment with the text.

Australia on Friday defended its decision to oppose the declaration, saying the document was "outside what we as Australians believe to be fair."

"We haven't wiped our hands of it, but as it currently stands at the moment, it would provide rights to a group of people which would be to the exclusion of others," Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough said.

But Australia's top rights group, which welcomed the declaration, said it was "a matter of great regret" that it was opposed by Canberra.

The declaration, which recognises the right to self-determination, was "a milestone for the world's indigenous peoples," Tom Calma, of Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, said.

"It also acknowledges that without recognising the collective rights of indigenous peoples and ensuring protection of our cultures, indigenous people can never truly be free and equal," he said.

The New Zealand government said Friday it voted against the UN declaration on indigenous rights because it disadvantaged non-indigenous people and conflicts with the country's laws.

Parekura Horomia, the New Zealand minister responsible for policy on the native Maori people, said his government was committed to protecting the rights of indigenous people.

But Horomia, himself a Maori, said the UN declaration on the human, land and resource rights of indigenous people was incompatible with New Zealand law.

"These articles imply different classes of citizenship where indigenous people have a right of veto that other groups or individuals do not have," Horomia told Radio New Zealand.

New Zealand was far ahead of other countries in promoting the rights of indigenous people, he said.

"Unfortunately, the provisions in the Declaration on lands, territories and resources are overly broad, unclear, and capable of a wide variety of interpretations, discounting the need to recognize a range of rights over land and possibly putting into question matters that have been settled by treaty," Canada's UN Ambassador John McNee told the assembly.

Among contentious issues was one article saying "states shall give legal recognition and protection" to lands, territories and resources traditionally "owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired" by indigenous peoples.

Another bone of contention was an article upholding native peoples' right to "redress by means that can include restitution or when not possible just, fair and equitable compensation, for their lands and resources "which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior ad informed consent".

Opponents also objected to one provision requiring states "to consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples ...to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources."

Indigenous advocates note that most of the world's remaining natural resources -- minerals, freshwater, potential energy sources -- are found within indigenous peoples' territories.

A leader of Canada's native community, Phil Fontaine, slammed his government's stance.

"We're very disappointed with Canada's opposition to the declaration on indigenous peoples," said Fontaine, leader of Assembly of First Nations, who came to New York to lobby for adoption of the text.

Canada's indigenous population is about 1.3 million people, out of a total population of 32.7 million.

Adoption of the declaration by the assembly had been deferred late last year at the behest of African countries led by Namibia, which raised objections about language on self-determination and the definition of "indigenous" people.

The Africans were won over after co-sponsors amended an article to read that "nothing in the declaration may be ...construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states."

The declaration was endorsed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council last year.

AFP
Last Mod: 14 Eylül 2007, 18:12
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