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Danish Minister: We made a promise ten years ago

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted at the UN General Assembly ten years ago. Denmark was one of the catalysers of drafting the Declaration and bringing it to the General Assembly. Read our interview with the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation, Ulla Tørnæs.

Denmark has recently presented its candidature for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2019-2021. One of the Danish top priorities is the rights of indigenous peoples. IWGIA met the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation, Ulla Tørnæs, for a conversation about the history and future of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Denmark’s involvement in drafting and realising the Declaration

In 1973, Denmark hosted a big conference for indigenous peoples from the North. The conference marked a turning point for Denmark’s active involvement in the rights of indigenous peoples in all parts of the world.  

So why have indigenous peoples for decades been a Danish priority?

"For Denmark, it has been very important to contribute to the respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. We were very involved when the Declaration was drafted and later adopted. Today it is still a priority, for example in Denmark’s candidature for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council," says Ulla Tørnæs.

Still, many countries do not acknowledge the rights of indigenous peoples. How can Denmark influence other countries to respect the rights of indigenous peoples?

"I believe that Denmark has a good story to tell when we look at our cooperation with Greenland. Our government, as well as our Parliament, have been focusing on, what we can do to enhancing respect for indigenous peoples and provide opportunities for them," says Ulla Tørnæs.

Greenland is a former colony of Denmark. Since 1979 Greenland has enjoyed "home rule". It covers a form of autonomy with rights and commands over internal matters. With the introduction of self-government came an explicitly mentioned legal right to independence if the Greenlandic people should wish it.

We all share an interest in respecting the Declaration

“I believe that other countries look to Denmark and learn from our experiences. The cooperation between Denmark and Greenland is an example on how challenges can be met and conflicts can be avoided. I think that this cooperation shows that even though indigenous peoples’ rights are not high on the international agenda we have a special story to share,” says Ulla Tørnæs says.

“I remember – when I was new in Parliament – how controversial it was to talk about collective rights. It is still a controversial topic. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the Declaration is here. And we all share an interest in respecting the Declaration,” says Ulla Tørnæs.

Alarming rates of violations

In 2017, we have witnessed an alarming rate of violations of indigenous peoples’ rights. What is your reaction to the increase in conflicts and violations?
“When indigenous peoples still have their rights violated, it is important to have this topic on the international agenda. It is important that a country like Denmark has an eye on human rights - including the rights of indigenous peoples. I am therefore proud to say that Denmark as a possible member of the Human Rights Council will focus on the rights of indigenous peoples. And I can promise that we will be looking for opportunities where we can make a change so that the rights of indigenous peoples are fulfilled,“ Ulla Tørnæs says.

Dialogue is key

Many indigenous peoples are experiencing violent attacks and violation, as the global race for resources and investment opportunities are increasing. How do you think we should balance the need for development including infrastructure projects and indigenous peoples’ rights?

”It is a dilemma: Should we prioritise development, or should we avoid building a highway or dam that could influence the daily life of indigenous peoples. There is no easy answer to that question. However, it is important for me to emphasize, that indigenous peoples should be included in the processes leading up to new infrastructure projects that involve them and their land. There should be dialogue with the people that are affected by new projects,” Ulla Tørnæs concludes.

”There is no doubt for me that indigenous peoples’ rights are under a big pressure globally - fuelled by the wish to create economic development that can contribute to growth and jobs. Still, this does not change the need to hold on to what we achieved with the UN Declaration 10 years ago,” ends Ulla Tørnæs.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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