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Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People approved

14 September, 2007

The United Nations approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September, 2007. After decades of work, this Declaration is the fulfilment of political efforts that can be traced back to visits by the Iroquois Confederacy and the Maori to the League of Nations in the 1920s.

General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa said, “the importance of this document for indigenous peoples and, more broadly, for the human rights agenda, cannot be underestimated. By adopting the Declaration, we are also taking another major step forward towards the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” Sheikha Haya warned, however, that “even with this progress, indigenous peoples still face marginalization, extreme poverty and other human rights violations. They are often dragged into conflicts and land disputes that threaten their way of life and very survival; and, suffer from a lack of access to health care and education.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma stated that, ‘Today’s decision is a milestone for the world’s indigenous peoples and for the United Nations.’ Calma explained that, ‘The Declaration reaffirms that indigenous individuals are entitled to all human rights recognised in international law without discrimination. But 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.’

(Readers can find more information from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on the UN Declaration here.)

Although the Declaration achieved very strong support (143 for, 4 against, with 11 abstentions), sadly, some of the countries with the largest indigenous populations. opposed the declaration: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Russia, which had been expected to oppose the Declaration, abstained from the vote in the end (especially important for Indigenous peoples in the Arctic). As Commissioner Calma comments, ‘it is a matter of great regret that Australia and three other nations have opposed the Declaration, particularly given that Australia had indicated its support for the vast majority of the Declaration’s provisions during the negotiations of the text.’

Calma has argued before, and maintains, that the Australian government’s reasons for opposing the Declaration are unsound and that the Government interprets the Declaration in ways that are inconsistent with international law in order to make their argument against it.

Monday, the Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett moved a motion to change the Australian position on the Declaration, as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald. Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was in Canberra following the APEC summit, and Bartlett’s motion sought to undo some of the damage done to the Declaration by Prime Minister Howard’s earlier successful efforts to lobby the Canadian government to reject the Declaration, which it had favored. In spite of support from his own party, Labor, the Greens, and Family First, Bartlett’s motion on behalf of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples went down in defeat, 35 to 33.

Backlash against the governments opposing the Declaration has been pretty swift… well, at least in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. I’m still searching for evidence of condemnation from the United States of its government’s resistance to Indigenous Rights, but I’m not holding my breath. (I’m a Yank, and I think most progressives in my home country are suffering from ‘outrage fatigue’ at this point. So many outrageous acts, so little time to get worked up…)

Especially given the current policy toward Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, it is perhaps not surprising that the current Government does not support the Declaration. Although the Declaration, like most human rights declarations, is non-binding and has no enforcement mechanism (we await the day with great hope…), it does make general statements that seem inconsistent with current policies.

For example, Article 26 of the Declaration states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”

According to another piece in The Herald, Northern Territory Labor Senator Trish Crossin has pointed out that the Government’s stance on the Declaration is ‘compounded by its radical intervention in the Northern Territory to combat sex abuse.’ Crossin points to a pattern of ‘heavy handed, top down’ approaches to Aboriginal policy that could have been balanced by the principles of the Declaration. In light of these policies in the NT, Crossin said, ‘The principles [of the UN Declaration] would ensure that indigenous people are partners in change, not merely the subject of a government’s latest policy shift.’

There is a profound irony that policies which substantially abrogate Aboriginal community rights, threatens local autonomy, stymies an already-slow land claim process, and otherwise undermines Indigenous rights can be implemented with extraordinary speed, whereas a non-binding document of principle, decades in the negotiation, one acceptable to the vast majority of Latin American, African, Asian, and European countries, must be approached with the greatest trepidation and fastidiousness. When the government wants to take away rights, they’ll make up policy as they go. When it comes to a statement of principle in support of rights, one that has no enforcement mechanism and is non-binding, suddenly the same people turn into anal-retentive constitutional scholars, worried about the possibility that just maybe one of the articles might contravene established legal principles.

You would think that, when many communities are feeling under attack by Government policy, the folks in charge might want to throw them some sort of concession. One could even see this as a kind of shallow, photo-op possibility. I can almost hear the PR people in the Government, ‘Look, some Australians are worried about your treatment of Aborigional communities. We’ve got this great opportunity to sign an international, non-binding, high-sounding Declaration – no skin off our backs! And we can even do a little meet and greet with some of the Aborigional representatives that helped to draft it. That’ll really shut up some of our critics!’

The utter inability of the Government to make even basic, superficial, potentially-hollow concessions to Indigenous rights (how hard is it to say ‘sorry’, for example?) reveals a resistance to Aboriginal rights, autonomy, and self-determination that can offer no concession because it is so ideologically brittle. It’s not just that real change must be resisted; even the appearance of allowing for the possibility of change must be emphatically avoided. But the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples probably stood no chance in Australia under the current Government as long as the word ‘self-determination’ lurked anywhere near it. Perhaps because I’m an American who has spent a fair bit of time in and around Indian reservations that allegedly have ‘sovereignty,’ I have a hard time understanding the visceral fear that some Australians have for the concept. In the US, I feel like many Americans feel reservations are great because they create spaces where they can avoid pesky laws against bingo, slot machines (aka, pokies in Oz), and cigarette taxes.

While it is disappointing to human rights activists, I cannot imagine what it must feel like for those Aboriginal activists who helped to put together the Declaration with long years of hard work, negotiation, compromise, and hope. Thank you to the activists and drafters and negotiators for your hard work; I do hope that we can soon right this injustice.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 29 September, 2007 12:08 am

    We here at the Democracy House learned in the last couple of weeks, that it is unfortunately not one of the strengths of so called democratic countries, to meet and highlight the needs of cultures that are different: Applying the same “recipes” for sustainability, success or whatever goal is targeted by governments and leaders who rule the world, seems to be a ‘bad habit’ of people who are not used to be questioned, simply because they have the louder voice and dominate the discourse already. People, especially indigenous people who should be empowered to strenghten their positions, can be excluded from a human rights declaration is to me a historical event of discrimination and oppression that should have ended one centuries ago.

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