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South Stands with Indigenous Peoples at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS--Despite continued opposition from the United States and some other major powers, the United Nations General Assembly seems poised to adopt the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Peoples` Rights later this month. Indigenous leaders told IPS Friday they were optimistic that a vast majority of the 192-member General Assembly would vote in favour of the resolution calling for the recognition of the rights of the world`s 270 million aboriginal people. The proposed declaration was set to be adopted by the General Assembly late last year but due to strong objections from certain countries, it was repeatedly set aside for further negotiations. In addition to the United States, the countries that refused to endorse the declaration included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Colombia, Suriname, Guyana and a group of African nations led by Namibia. While many among them remain in opposition, there are strong indications that almost all the African countries are now fully supportive of the declaration. The African group changed its stance after a majority of the 16-member U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues agreed to accept its demand for changes in certain parts of the text dealing with the concept of "self-determination". The declaration calls for recognition of the indigenous peoples` right to self-determination and control over lands, a principle fully recognised by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, but deemed controversial by some who fear that it could undermine the sovereignty of states. In return for their support, the African countries wanted the declaration to mention that it does not encourage any actions which would undermine the "territorial integrity" or "political unity" of sovereign states. Despite the fact that the African viewpoint has been incorporated into the amended version, the draft declaration remains assertive of the indigenous peoples` right to self-determination and control over their land and resources. "It is subject to interpretation, but we can work with this," Les Malezer, chair of the Global Indigenous Caucus, told IPS. Like many other indigenous leaders, Malezer, a longtime aboriginal rights activist, initially did not approve of amendments in the draft. "We would not have gone for the amendments," he said. "But presented with the amended declaration, presented with the agreement made between approximately 130 states, then we have a very good result." The indigenous leadership wanted the declaration to be adopted by consensus, but since certain countries remain unwilling to recognise their rights, it is most likely that the General Assembly would opt for a formal vote. "If a few states did not accept the declaration, then it would be a reflection on them rather than the document." said Malezer, in a veiled reference to the position taken by the U.S. Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Many indigenous leaders charge that, as they have in the past, the U.S. and Canada were still trying to apply pressure tactics on economically weak and vulnerable nations to secure their votes against the declaration. "They have been dictating to developing countries," said Joseph Ole Simel, coordinator of the African Regional Indigenous Caucus. "However, the Third World countries have now taken a very progressive step in terms of commitment to the rights of indigenous peoples." "We want to make a humble appeal to those countries that still have difficulties that indigenous peoples all around the world wish that declaration to be adopted by consensus," Simel added in a statement, urging the U.S. and its allies "to take the same direction Africa has taken." Those in opposition see the draft declaration as "flawed," mainly because of its strong emphasis on the right to self-determination and full control over lands and resources. In their view, they would hinder efforts for economic development and undermine the so-called established democratic norms. This tension is also reflected in other areas of diplomatic discourses, including the U.N. treaty on biological diversity and the World Trade Organisation, in terms of the needs of neo-liberal economic order and the argument that indigenous people have the right to own and use their resources without interference. The biodiversity treaty, for example, not only recognises the significance of traditional knowledge, but also calls for a "fair and equitable" share of the benefits derived from indigenous lands by commercial enterprises. The United States has refused to sign on to that treaty, while some of its allies who are against the declaration have expressed their reservations about how to implement the principle of "fair and equitable" distribution of resources. Meanwhile, threats to indigenous lands and resources continue to go on in the form of mining, logging, toxic contamination, privatisation, and large-scale development projects, as well as the use of genetically modified seeds. Recent scientific studies have repeatedly warned of devastating consequences for indigenous communities as changing climates are likely to cause more floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and melting of glaciers all across the world. The General Assembly move to consider the declaration comes at a time when more than 100 political leaders from around the world are preparing to arrive in New York to attend a high-level meeting on climate change. For many indigenous leaders, this is a historic moment. "We have been doing this work for more than 22 years," said Vicky Tauli-Corpus, chairperson of the Permanent Form, hoping that this time the General Assembly would say yes to the declaration. (END/2007) South Stands with Indigenous Peoples at the U.N.

Source IPS (07 September 2007)


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