The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
On September 13, 2007 the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The adoption followed more than twenty years of discussion within the UN system. Indigenous peoples played a key role in the formulation of the Declaration.
There are over 370 million indigenous people in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific. They are among the most impoverished, marginalised and frequently victimised people in the world.
This universal human rights instrument is celebrated globally as a symbol of triumph and hope. While it is not legally binding on States, and does not, therefore, impose legal obligations on governments, the Declaration carries considerable moral force. Effective implementation of the Declaration would result in significant improvements in the global situation of indigenous peoples.
The content of the Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples
The Declaration is a long and complex document with a preamble and 46 articles.
The text recognises the wide range of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples. Among these are the right to unrestricted self-determination, an inalienable collective right to the ownership, use and control of lands, territories and other natural resources, their rights in terms of maintaining and developing their own political, religious, cultural and educational institutions along with the protection of their cultural and intellectual property.
The Declaration highlights the requirement for prior and informed consultation, participation and consent in activities of any kind that impact on indigenous peoples, their property or territories. It also establishes the requirement for fair and adequate compensation for violation of the rights recognised in the Declaration and establishes guarantees against ethnocide and genocide.
The Declaration also provides for fair and mutually acceptable procedures to resolve conflicts between indigenous peoples and States, including procedures such as negotiations, mediation, arbitration, national courts and international and regional mechanisms for denouncing and examining human rights violations.
1983 - The initial steps
The formulation of a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples first began in 1983 within the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. For almost a decade the Working Group devoted a large part of its time to drafting this text. Representatives of indigenous peoples, government delegations and experts on the subject participated very actively in this process.
In 1993, the Working Group adopted the text of the Declaration and sent it to its superior body, the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, which, in turn, adopted the text in 1994 and sent it to the Commission on Human Rights for its consideration.
1995 - The establishment of the Working Group on the Draft Declaration
In 1995, the Commission on Human Rights considered the text submitted by the Sub-Commission and decided to establish an Inter-sessional Working Group (Resolution of the Commission on Human Rights 1995 / 32, 3 March 1995) with the mandate to consider the text presented and draw up a draft Declaration for its consideration and adoption by the UN General Assembly within the framework of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004). In 2005 the mandate of the Working Group was renewed.
The Commission on Human Rights also set up a procedure that made it possible for indigenous peoples' organisations to participate actively in the drafting work at the Commission level. That meant that indigenous peoples' organisations without consultative status with the Economic and Social Council were allowed to help draft the Declaration. Those entitled to vote within this Working Group were the member governments of the Commission on Human Rights. Governments that were not members of the Commission, NGOs with consultative status and indigenous organisations with special accreditation had observer status.
2007 - UN General Assembly adopts the Declaration
With an overwhelming majority of 143 votes in favour, only 4 negative votes cast (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United States) and 11 abstentions, the United Nations General Assembly (GA) adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on September 13, 2007 after more than 20 years of negotiations between nation-states and Indigenous Peoples.
Les Malezer, Chair of the International Indigenous Peoples' Caucus, welcomed the adoption of the Declaration in a statement to the General Assembly:
"The Declaration does not represent solely the viewpoint of the United Nations, nor does it represent solely the viewpoint of the Indigenous Peoples. It is a Declaration which combines our views and interests and which sets the framework for the future. It is a tool for peace and justice, based upon mutual recognition and mutual respect."