NCAI endorses UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Gale Courey Toensing
11/14/08

WASHINGTON – The National Congress of American Indians has passed a resolution supporting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and urging its endorsement by state governments and Congress.

The resolution was adopted unanimously by NCAI’s Subcommittee of Human, Religious and Cultural Concerns, presented to the Litigation and Governance Committee, and finally adopted unanimously by the general assembly without discussion during NCAI’s 65th annual conference in Phoenix Oct. 19 – 24.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly on Sept. 13, 2007, in a historic vote by an overwhelming majority – 143 member states voted in favor, 11 abstained and four – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – voted against the declaration. Each of the four countries that opposed the declaration have large indigenous populations who own or have claims to huge land masses.

While it is not binding in law, the declaration represents the highest moral standard for the treatment of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous peoples, written as it is in a human rights framework that will guide government policies for indigenous communities and promote the participation of indigenous peoples in the political processes and decisions that affect them.

The NCAI resolution recognizes that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “reinforces the respect and protection of full self-determination rights by and on behalf of U.S. Tribal Nations as well as the protection of tribal lands and treaties as a matter of international law and policy and is therefore in the vital interests of all U.S. Tribal Nations.”

The resolution acknowledges that the declaration expresses both the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights regarding culture, identity, language, employment, health, educational and other issues.

The UN Declaration lays out the minimum human rights necessary for the “survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.” These include the right of self-determination, protections from discrimination and genocide, and recognition of rights to lands, territories and resources that are essential to the identity, health and livelihood of indigenous peoples. The declaration also explicitly requires that these rights and protections are balanced with other rights and interpreted in accordance with the principles of democracy, justice, non-discrimination, good governance and respect for the human rights of everyone.

The NCAI resolution reiterates the declaration’s provisions that “discrimination against indigenous people should be abolished and that promotion of their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them should be encouraged.”

The resolution asserts that indigenous peoples’ “right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development is vital according to this declaration.”

The NCAI document promises to send its resolution “to all state Governors and legislators for support through their legislature for memorial resolutions to the Congress of the United States; and. ... the NCAI calls upon the United States to sign the declaration.”

Robert Tim Coulter, one of the original authors of the declaration and executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont., and Washington, D.C., says the declaration is “the most significant development in international human rights in decades. Tribes must work harder than ever to pressure the U.S. to respect these rights.”

Coulter said the best way to gain support is to demand that the United States join in adopting a strong Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Organization of American States. The OAS is currently negotiating a powerful American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples much like the U.N. declaration.

The OAS is the principal forum for strengthening democracy and human rights in the Western Hemisphere and is made up of 35 member nations in North, Central and South America.

“We must publicly protest the continuing violation of our rights in the United States, and we must demand serious action in the OAS to finalize an effective declaration supported by all countries in the Americas,” he said.

Coulter urged tribes to get involved at upcoming OAS meetings in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 26 – 30 and March 23 – 27, and tribal leaders to make plans now to attend “to ensure our voices are heard.”

More information is available at the OAS Web site http://www.oas.org/.

“We have to continue fighting to change discriminatory and grossly unjust laws that are applied to Native peoples.” Coulter said.

While the U.S. government has made no move toward endorsing the declaration in the 14 months since its passage, both Canada and Australia have inched forward.

Canada’s House of Commons endorsed the declaration on April 8, and called on the Senate and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration to “fully implement the standards contained therein.”

Harper declined to do so, claiming that the declaration is not applicable in Canada.

Ironically, two months later Harper tacitly admitted just how applicable the Declaration’s human rights protections are in Canada. On June 11, Harper issued the first formal apology from a Canadian prime minister for the brutal Indian residential schools that were federally financed from the 1870s until the last residential school was closed in 1998.

“The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history,” Harper said. “Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.”

Australia’s new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who defeated former Prime Minister John Howard last December, has demonstrated his intention to improve relations with the country’s indigenous peoples. The government issued a “National Apology to the Stolen Generations” in February and a commitment to “Close the Gap” in indigenous health inequality in March.

According to Peter Seidel, a partner in Public Interest Law, in an article published in The Guardian (Australia) Oct. 15, the government is close to endorsing the Declaration.

“Australia’s long held opposition to the Declaration now looks set to change, with the Commonwealth expected shortly to formalize its support. When it’s taken, the step of formally, albeit belatedly, supporting the Declaration will be very powerful symbolism for Australia. And it will of course strengthen, not diminish, our reputation within the international community as a country at the vanguard of promoting and protecting the basic human rights of all, particularly the most disenfranchised,” Seidel wrote.

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