U.N. Assembly backs indigenous peoples' rights

UNITED NATIONS Thu Sep 13, 2007 6:14pm EDT

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly passed a sweeping declaration of rights for indigenous peoples on Thursday despite opposition from several developed states that said it gave excessive property and legal powers.

Four countries -- the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- voted against the nonbinding declaration, but it went through overwhelmingly with 143 votes in favor and 11 abstentions. Not all countries in the 192-member Assembly took part in the vote.

Under negotiation for 20 years, the document says that indigenous people, whose number has been put at 270 million worldwide as understood by the declaration, "have the right to self-determination."

One of its most controversial articles states that "indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired."

That could potentially put in question most of the land ownership in countries, such as those that opposed the declaration, whose present population is largely descended from settlers who took over territory from previous inhabitants.

A balancing clause inserted at a late stage in the text says nothing in it can authorize or encourage "any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity" of states.

POLITICAL FOOTBALL

That was not good enough for the four objectors, notably Canada, where the issue has become a political football. Many of Canada's 1 million aboriginal and Inuit people live in overcrowded, unsanitary housing and suffer high rates of unemployment, substance abuse and suicide.

"The provisions in the declaration on lands, territories and resources are overly broad, unclear, and capable of a wide variety of interpretations," Canada's U.N. Ambassador John McNee told the General Assembly.

That stance was attacked by Canada's left-leaning opposition New Democrats. "It's very disappointing. I think it's cowardly and very un-Canadian ... we pride ourselves on being advocates for human rights," legislator Jean Crowder told Reuters.

U.S. delegate Robert Hagen said the U.N. Human Rights Council, which prepared the text, had not sought consensus. "This declaration was adopted ... in a splintered vote. This process was unfortunate and extraordinary," he said.

Aside from land ownership issues, critics also assailed provisions on indigenous peoples' intellectual property, right to be consulted on laws affecting them and right to exempt their land from military activities.

But supporters of the declaration said it gave long overdue recognition to indigenous peoples.

"This declaration is the least that could be approved to give us all instruments recognizing the existence of indigenous people," Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, himself indigenous, told the General Assembly.

"It is an important step for indigenous people to do away with discrimination, to strengthen the identity, to recognize our right to land and natural resources, to be consulted, to participate in decisions," the minister said.

Most U.S. allies, including Britain and Japan, also voted for the declaration, saying last minute amendments had made it acceptable, given that it did not have the force of international law.

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