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UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Recognising the Rights of Peoples

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The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples represents the recognition of rights that have been denied for years.  While some debate the feasibility of the declaration, it provides the first comprehensive standards to realise the rights of these marginalised groups.
“Over the years, we have witnessed the immense obstacles certain persons and groups face in enjoying their human rights fully. Among the groups most at risk and in need of protection are indigenous peoples, who have suffered perennial prejudice and discrimination.” – Statement by 28 Independent experts of the UN Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Day, 10 December 2004.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) is once again up for debate in the United Nations General Assembly (GA). DRIP has been in the development process for over 20 years, consulted on by states, experts, indigenous peoples and organisations. In its own words, DRIP presents “minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well being of the indigenous people of the world” (article 42). Indigenous peoples live everywhere in the world and occupy every sector of society, yet “the vast majority of Indigenous peoples, hundreds of millions, live and die in poverty every day.”1 Passing of the DRIP by the GA is crucial; it can not be delayed again.

On 26 June 2006 the UN Human Rights Council finally adopted a resolution on DRIP and the declaration was forwarded to the GA for final approval. If adopted, the declaration will represent a major step towards confronting the widespread human rights violations faced by millions of Indigenous peoples around the world. The DRIP is not legally binding; it addresses the key areas for improvement of the human rights situations of Indigenous peoples.

The adoption of DRIP was stalled by the GA on 27 November 2006, ignoring the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ appeal to the GA (16 October, 2006) "to adopt the Declaration without delay at its present session." The Namibian delegation put forth a non-action resolution that was supported by the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee and therefore, states have to come together again to vote before the end of the 61st session of the GA in September 2007. The delay in adopting DRIP is a serious setback in the universal recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples. Currently, the only international treaty that addresses the rights of Indigenous peoples is Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees fundamental rights of all people, but specific Indigenous group rights still need to be recognised as they are in DRIP. The key themes of DRIP include: dignity and equality, maintenance and continuation of distinct cultural practices, children’s rights to be brought up in their culture, development consultation, land use and self-determination.

A prevalent experience faced by Indigenous peoples around the world is “systematic discrimination” as named by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples. Systematic discrimination refers to how Indigenous peoples are excluded from all levels of society, in all places that Indigenous peoples live, making them the poorest of the poor and most excluded from accessing resources for basic needs. It must be emphasised that this systematic discrimination exists in all places where Indigenous peoples live, including the world’s most developed and seemingly human rights friendly countries such as Canada.

Adoption by the GA would in no way solve the issues of Indigenous peoples, but as DRIP itself states it is “as a standard of achievement to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect.” Besides systematic discrimination, there remain vast protection gaps for Indigenous peoples between social, cultural, economic and political rights and the reality of their lives. DRIP presents goals to be sought after.

Cooperation is required to successfully pass DRIP, not only among Indigenous peoples and organisations, but within the international community as well. As Rodolfo Stavenhagen stated 13 April 2005 at an Indigenous forum at the 61st Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, on the topic of the wide spread human rights violations faced by Indigenous peoples, “this is not only, I believe, a concern of and for Indigenous peoples around the world, but it is a concern for every body in the world who is interested and at all concerned with human rights of human beings everywhere.”

1 Mililani Trask at Advancing the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples: A critical challenge for the international community, Voices from a forum at the 61st session of the UN Commission on Human Rights 13 April 2005.