18 July 2007


18 July 2007
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY indigenous peoples’ caucus


With less than 8 weeks left in the General Assembly’s sixty-first session, the Chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus said today that the clock was ticking and United Nations Member States must live up to their commitment and formally adopt the long-negotiated Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by mid-September.

Briefing the press at Headquarters on the status of the Declaration, which aims to help improve the human rights of indigenous people around the world, Les Malezer told reporters that this past December, the 192-member General Assembly had approved a resolution delaying adoption of the text, but it had taken the decision with the commitment that it would complete the task before the end of the sixty-first session.

“The time has come,” he said, calling on the world body to “convene as soon as possible to vote in favour of the Declaration”, which was adopted in June 2006 by the Human Rights Council.  The text, which the world’s 350 million indigenous people consider essential to their very survival as unique and distinctive populations, has been nearly 25 years in the making, and addresses issues ranging from self-determination to land claims and resource rights, gender equality and the protection of indigenous cultural heritage and traditional languages.

While noting that the United Nations had consistently drawn attention to the plight of the world’s indigenous peoples for nearly two decades, he said that representatives of tribal and native groups were nevertheless very concerned by the myth that discussions in the Assembly were “for Member States only” and that indigenous peoples’ delegations were merely “non-governmental organizations” that did not have the right to conduct business with States at the General Assembly level.

Asked if he believed then that the Assembly would really take a decision by 17 September -- the final day of the sixty-first session -- Mr. Malezer said, so far, he had no reason to believe that Member States would not live up to the commitment to act.  At the same time, the text faced strong opposition by some States who wished to restart the drafting process -– Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Russian Federation, Suriname, Guyana and Colombia.

Moreover, the African Group had floated some 30 amendments, fearing that the Declaration’s call for self-determination could be misused by tribes in Africa to declare themselves “indigenous peoples” and claim the right of secession, “a right which, by the way, does not exist”, Mr. Malezer said.  He stressed that the Caucus believed that fear of misrepresentation of the Declaration was not a basis for denying equality and rights to indigenous peoples.  Further, he had been “extremely disappointed” that the African Group had taken “the political decision” to oppose the Declaration as a bloc, which was a disservice to the transparency and accountability practised by the United Nations.

“Moreover, it is an offence to all peoples of the world, a brutal reminder that discrimination against indigenous peoples is entrenched in modern geopolitics, and a cover-up of the extreme predicaments that demanded the gestation of an indigenous declaration 25 years ago and a renewed commitment every year since,” he said, adding that some other States had claimed the resolution on the Declaration had been a “surprise”, which could not possibly have been the case, since the Assembly had been adopting similar resolutions since 1993.

In that light, on the outcome of a vote in the Assembly, all he could point to with any confidence was the decision taken by the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) last November, where the votes had been pretty evenly divided between sponsors of the Declaration and the African group and those calling for more time to negotiate.  If the African Group could resolve its issues, then there would be almost unanimous support for the Declaration.

Still, the Caucus and the bureau of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues did not want a resolution on the Declaration defeated in the General Assembly.  If there was a feeling that there was not enough support for the Declaration, representatives of the two bodies would hold consultations on the way forward with Member States that supported the text.

On Moscow’s opposition to the Declaration, he said that, when the text had been adopted in the Human Rights Council, the Russian Federation -- who along with Canada had been the only other State to vote against the draft -- said that it felt that the negotiating process had not been properly completed and that the Assembly’s ad hoc working group should hold further meetings.  The Russian delegation had not, at that time, expressed any opposition to the contents of the Declaration.  “But we find now, 12 months later, that in fact they have a list of over 11 items of concern”, most of which had not been raised in the Working Group, of which the Russian Federation had been a member.

So, the position of the Russian Federation, as well as Canada over the past few weeks and months, seemed to be “developing to pick up anything they can to criticize the Declaration”, he said, stressing that the Caucus wanted to extend a hand to all those who had concerns about the text to reach an equitable decision.  Asked about the United States’ position on the Declaration, he said that most people had long understood that Washington was opposed to the Declaration, and the United States now appeared to be “just sitting back and waiting for a vote”.

Sonia Smallacombe of the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum, who joined Mr. Malezer at the briefing, said that United Nations had had a long commitment and engagement regarding the rights of indigenous peoples.  The adoption of the Declaration would be an historic development representing many years of work and cooperation between representatives of indigenous communities, Member States and non-governmental organizations all working together.  The Declaration, which was long overdue, was something to be celebrated, especially since it articulated many of the values the United Nations represented.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.