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Will US. torpedo UN Indigenous rights declaration?

By Haider Rizvi
Updated Oct 31, 2006, 09:25 pm

UNITED NATIONS (IPS/GIN) - Even though various UN agencies have endorsed an international document that calls for full recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples, the United States and a handful of other nations continue to stand in the way of its approval by the 192-member General Assembly.

Indigenous leaders, attending the current session of the General Assembly, told IPS at a news conference that they hoped the General Assembly would adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by consensus, but said they were not sure what would happen in light of opposition from the United States and its allies.

“It will be embarrassing for the UN if it votes [down] the declaration. It will be shameful,” said Aqqaluk Lynge, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an organization based in the Inuit territories in Greenland, the United States, Canada and Russia.

The declaration, which has already been approved by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, was put together by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues last May, following years of intense diplomacy involving governments, native peoples’ representatives and numerous non-governmental organizations.

The General Assembly is expected to discuss the issue in coming days. The declaration recognizes the rights of Indigenous people to their lands and resources. It states that Indigenous people must be protected from forced assimilation and the destruction of their cultures.

Even if approved, the declaration would not be legally binding. Nevertheless, its supporters say the declaration would increase pressure on governments to observe universal principles such as democracy, justice and nondiscrimination.

“This is a declaration, not an international law,” said Kent Lebsock, executive director of the New York-based American Indian Law Alliance, while criticizing the role the U.S. and its allies have played in diplomatic talks on the declaration.

“It’s a recommendation on how to interact with Indigenous people,” he added. “It’s just the first step, so that we begin to discover how to use it.”

At issue is the treatment of disparate Indigenous populations who, according to UN estimates, add up to more than 370 million people worldwide.

Indigenous leaders said they had been assured of support from many nations, including the European Union, but added they saw no signs of flexibility in the attitude of the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

The three countries have consistently opposed the text’s embrace of Indigenous peoples’ demand for “self-determination.”

“No government can accept the notion of creating different classes of citizens,” delegations from the three countries said in a joint statement recently, that also described the Indigenous communities’ demand to determine their own affairs as “inconsistent with international law.” They said the Indigenous land claims ignore current reality “by appearing to require the recognition to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens.”

Native leaders said recently that Canada has also expressed opposition to the principle of self-determination, although in the past it had lent its unconditional support for the cause of Indigenous peoples.

“It did a huge flip-flop, which was most unfortunate, after the election of their current conservative government,” Mr. Lebsock told IPS. “They are now back squarely in the U.S. camp.”

Similar controversy has surfaced over the declaration’s recognition of Indigenous peoples’ demand that the holders or seekers of commercial patents on seeds, plants and other forms of traditional knowledge must first obtain consent from the communities that discovered or developed the assets.

U.S. and other delegates have argued that free and informed prior consent would run counter to the current intellectual property rights regime, which favors commercial development. To Indigenous leaders and advocates, however, opposition to the declaration comes from colonizers who have yet to face up to centuries of abuse and exploitation.

“The imperial era was largely based on the dispossession of most of the world’s Indigenous people,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, an advocacy group based in Britain. “It cannot be considered over until the world accepts these peoples’ rights.”

© Copyright 2006 FCN Publishing, FinalCall.com

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