In the spotlight: Realizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

This year will mark 10 years since the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration) was adopted, setting minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples around the world. Ahead of its anniversary on 13 September, UN DESA’s Division of Social Policy and Development (DSPD) is gathering experts for a three-day meeting to discuss achievements made and challenges that remain in realizing the UN Declaration at the global, regional and national levels.

The discussion taking place from 25-27 January is the first step in a series of events to take stock of the current situation and to advance the lives and rights of indigenous peoples. This includes the direction that the UN Declaration takes as governments around the world continue to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The UN Declaration has also played its part in influencing the new phase of global goals. In fact, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now show six direct references to indigenous peoples. This is a major step forward compared to the Millennium Development Goals, where indigenous peoples were largely invisible.

Ms. Daniela Bas, Director of DSPD believes that time has now come to put these new goals in good use. “As a subsidiary body to Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Permanent Forum has an important role to play in ensuring that indigenous peoples’ issues,” she said. “Concerns and suggestions are heard and they feed into the discussions of the ECOSOC and the High Level Political Forum annual sessions”.

So what’s being done to reach these goals? Mariam Aboubakrine, the acting Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues , believes not enough.

“Another concern is the limits of the international system of human rights,” she said. “There is a trend of saying the right things but the reality on the ground is different.”

According to research contributed by Ms. Sheryl Lightfoot of the University of British Columbia, this feeling of frustration is justified. From Ms. Lightfoot’s analysis, only two countries (3.4 per cent) of a cross-national study of 60 states with significant indigenous populations comply with their high commitment to indigenous rights.

Ms. Lightfoot also discovered that four CANZUS states (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) are “over-compliant”, meaning they take constitutional, legal and/or policy actions that recognize specific rights that go beyond their international human rights obligations.

“Over-compliance is a nuanced behaviour that seems to keep these countries’ expectations low enough that they can interpret and proclaim their status quo as already in line with international indigenous rights standards,” Ms. Lightfoot said.

Expert Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim from Chad explained that the African region saw a big advance from the UN Declaration, as several countries have now begun to take steps to support indigenous peoples’ rights.

But to address remaining challenges, international experts agree that more needs to be done at the national level, and that the participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making processes is key, both at national and global levels and in practices like the 2030 Agenda implementation.

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