12 December 2006
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Last May, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan had claimed that indigenous peoples had a home at the United Nations, but the deferral of the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in November clearly indicated that it was not the case, a representative of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus said at a Headquarters press conference this morning.

Discussing the status and the future of the Declaration were indigenous rights leaders and human rights advocates:  Roberto Mucaro Borrero, of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, who is also a Chair of the NGO Committee on the Decade of the World’s Indigenous People; Alison Graham, of the International Service for Human Rights; and Chief Phil Fontane, of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada.  The event was moderated by Elsa Stamatopoulou, Chief of the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Reading a statement from the International Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, Mr. Borrero said that the Caucus was shocked and outraged by the actions of the United Nations, whose Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) had failed to adopt “the most important international instrument for the promotion and protection of the human rights of indigenous peoples”.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples constitutes the minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being, he said.  The newly created Human Rights Council -– the premier international body to deal with human rights -– had adopted the Declaration on 29 June this year.  However, the cause had been delivered a huge blow by African States, many of which had chosen not to participate through that standard-setting process.  Africa had taken the lead in blocking the adoption of the Declaration –- a strategy supported and encouraged by New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the United States.  It was clear that such an action of politicizing human rights showed clear disregard for the ongoing human rights abuses suffered by indigenous peoples.  That betrayal and injustice severely impacted the 370 million indigenous people who were among the most marginalized groups in all regions of the world.

Ms. Graham presented a joint statement by Amnesty International, Canadian Friends Service Committee, the International Service for Human Rights, and the Netherlands Centre for Indigenous People, saying that international human rights organizations were outraged by the decision of the Third Committee to defer the adoption of the Declaration.  The United Nations had missed a historic opportunity to fill a critical gap in international human rights protection.  The Indigenous Caucus had characterized that action as “sending the message that the UN affirmed (that) indigenous peoples were not equal to all other peoples”.  Under development within the United Nations for over 20 years, the Declaration was a non-binding human rights instrument, which encouraged States and indigenous peoples to work together to address the basic needs of indigenous individuals and communities, including greater control over their own lives and secure access to the lands and natural resources essential to their survival and the practice of their cultures.

She recalled that the debate in the Third Committee had been marred by unfounded and alarmist claims about a potential impact of the Declaration.  Statements by New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the United States that the Declaration would jeopardize the rights and interests of other sectors of society wilfully ignored the fact that the Declaration could only be interpreted in relation to the full range of existing human rights protections in States’ obligations.  Domestic political agendas had taken precedence over the protection of human rights.  The unfortunate and unnecessary decision to not adopt the Declaration undermined the work of the Human Rights Council, which had been tasked to lead on the promotion of human rights.

The motion to defer further debate had been put forward by the African States, she continued.  That motion –- passed by the Third Committee on 28 November by a vote of 82 to 67 -– called for the decision to be deferred until the end of the Assembly’s current session in September 2007, so that further consultations could take place.  The motion was widely viewed as an effort to weaken, or undermine, key provisions of the Declaration as adopted by the Human Rights Council.

In fact, with indigenous peoples being among the most marginalized and vulnerable all over the world, the adoption of the Declaration would have marked only a first step towards overcoming the deep-rooted prejudice and discrimination.  Recognizing the efforts of many States to support the Declaration, she urged others to respect the decision of the Human Rights Council last June and commit themselves to the adoption of the Declaration at the earliest possible opportunity.

Chief Fontane said that he wanted to add the voices of Canada’s First Nations’ Chiefs to the statements read out in the room.  They also agreed with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples and the Chair of the Human Rights Council, who had both expressed their deep regret at the events in the Third Committee.  Indeed, indigenous peoples were shocked and outraged over the latest developments in connection with the Declaration.  They were also gravely concerned about the lack of respect and protection of human rights of over 350 million people worldwide.

The deferral of action on Declaration was the worst possible outcome, short of voting it down.  It showed true colours of some countries that presented themselves as human rights defenders.  He also expressed deep concern with the behaviour of some members of the Human Rights Council, who had pledged to uphold the highest standards of human rights for all.  Apparently, that pledge did not include the indigenous people.  “We will be calling for a review of their conduct using the peer review mechanism, as this short-sighted vote in the Third Committee not only harms indigenous peoples, but also the credibility of the Human Rights Council itself,” he said.  He also insisted that any future deliberations in the Third Committee must take place with full participation, and consent, of indigenous peoples.

To several questions about Canada’s position on the issue, Chief Fontane said that Canada had been actively and positively engaged in the work on the Declaration over the last two decades, working very hard to secure support for the new instrument from Member States.  However, in a recent “about-face”, the country’s new Government had informed the indigenous groups that Canada could not support the Declaration and would vote against it.  That was a stain on the country’s reputation.

As for the concern that the adoption of the Declaration could reopen some of the existing land agreements with First Nations, he said that it was unfounded.  The Supreme Court of Canada had already ruled that domestic laws would prevail over international laws.  The Declaration would set the minimum standards to protect the interests of indigenous peoples, who were looking for fairness and justice on behalf of their Government.  However, the document spoke about an inalienable right to self-determination.  That issue was critical for indigenous peoples throughout the world, as it was in Canada.  The most effective way of addressing poverty -– the single most important social justice factor in Canada –- was to ensure that first nations were able to exercise jurisdictional responsibilities over their land and territories.  The document would enable them to engage on a more equal footing with their Government.

He added that it was expected that in the next ten years, there would be investment on the order of $200 billion in the major development areas in Canada, much of it taking place in Indian lands and indigenous peoples’ traditional territories.  There was a fear that indigenous peoples would impede development, but it was clear that those peoples were not anti-development.  However, they wanted to make sure that development took place in a way that would protect the integrity of their communities.  They also wanted to participate in development, and the Government had a duty to consult and engage indigenous communities in a meaningful way.  Due consideration should be given to the rights and interests of First Nation peoples.

Asked about actions planned in Latin America and the Caribbean in support of the Declaration, Mr. Borrero stressed the need to educate the people and Governments about the importance of the draft.  The Declaration represented a new page in history for indigenous peoples.

About Africa’s response to the draft, he said that it was a shock, because historically, Africa had been supportive of indigenous peoples.  However, there had not been much involvement in the process on behalf of the African countries.  Now, the position of those countries would become clearer as weeks went by.  There had been reports of some Governments putting pressure on other Governments, and he believed it was a factor in this case.

Regarding the rights to resources, he said that from an indigenous perspective, one had to recognize that country borders had been created around their communities.  Development of nation States had taken place using the resources of indigenous peoples, but there had been no just transition for benefit sharing.  For that reason, an international instrument recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights was so important.

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For information media • not an official record