Jasper: US position on collective rights needs clarification

Suzanne Jasper
9/27/10

Recently the government of the United States fulfilled a duty as a member of the United Nations to issue a report of the human rights situation in this country, as part of the Universal Periodic Review. The report will be reviewed by other member states of the U.N.

Under previous administrations, it was the practice of the State Department to issue reports on other countries, but not to look at its own domestic record. However, this president has expressed his commitment to “human rights at home,” and has declared that, even aside from the UPR, a U.S. report on the U.S. will appear among the reports issued by the State Department. We welcome this change.

We also welcome the State Department’s announced review of the United States position regarding endorsement of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However we are writing now to express serious concerns regarding recent language used by representatives of the State Department.

Last fall, Resolution (A/RES/64/172) was adopted in the General Assembly of the United Nations regarding the Right to Development. Preambular paragraph 7 stated:

“ … Deeply concerned that the majority of indigenous peoples in the world live in conditions of poverty, and recognizing the critical need to address the negative impact of poverty and inequity on indigenous peoples by ensuring their full and effective inclusion in development and poverty eradication programmes. …”

The United States voted against this resolution. In explaining the negative U.S. vote, the U.S. representative claimed concern “by the appearance of extraneous topics in the draft. … such as indigenous peoples, among others.” Given that indigenous peoples globally and nationally have often been described as the “poorest of the poor” and that violations of their right to development are at the heart of the poverty which has been imposed on them, it is shocking to hear a representative of the State Department claim that indigenous concerns are “extraneous” and a valid reason for the United States to vote against the Right to Development.

By contrast, President Obama recently declared:

“. … too often, this community has heard grand promises from Washington, that turned out to be little more than empty words. And I pledged to you then that if you gave me a chance, this time it would be different.”

The president also recently asserted, “I intend to send a clear message that all of our people – whether they live in our biggest cities or our most remote reservations – have the right to feel safe in their own communities, and to raise their children in peace, and enjoy the fullest protection of our laws.” The president’s statement recalls the heart of Article 7 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, paragraph 2: “Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples.”

What the United States says at the United Nations is not widely known at home, yet is often inconsistent with international human rights law.

At the Human Rights Council last June, the State Department voted against the Right of Peoples to Peace, denying that collective rights (Rights of Peoples) are human rights and claiming that “human rights are universal, and apply to individuals. Collective rights are a distinct category of rights.”

On a key issue, the U.S. is maintaining its same decades-old problematic position. This denial is particularly important to indigenous peoples, since the fundamental right of self-determination is a “right of peoples,” articulated in essential human rights Covenants, and is therefore a collective human right.

The United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article I of both instruments is the right of self-determination of “peoples” which the U.S. is legally bound to respect and protect.

Under the previous administration, the U.S. representative to the U.N. at the time of the vote on the Declaration in 2007 said, “We also note that Preambular paragraphs 2 and 16 as well as Article 2 [of the Declaration] were not intended to imply that the existing right of self-determination is automatically applicable to indigenous peoples per se or to indicate that indigenous peoples automatically qualify as ‘peoples’ for purposes of Article 1.”

This statement ignores the conclusions of U.N. treaty bodies. For example, the U.N. Human Rights Committee had confirmed in 1999 that the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples, like all peoples, is affirmed in Article 1 of the human rights Covenants.

… the Committee expects Norway to report on the Sami peoples’ right to self-determination under Article 1 of the Covenant, including paragraph 2 of that article.

To claim that the Article 1 rights of “peoples” exclude indigenous peoples does not reflect the “change” we believe this president stands for. To falsely claim that human rights are only individual rights or that the “Article 1 rights of peoples” exclude indigenous peoples is an old song of the previous administration.

What the United States says at the United Nations is not widely known at home, yet is often inconsistent with international human rights law. For those indigenous leaders and individuals who are not familiar with international human rights law, the diverse concerns and problems entrenched in U.S. positions may not be evident. These comments made abroad have not been addressed in the so-called listening sessions nationwide, but should have been an integral part of the discussion.

If it is the U.S. position that collective rights are not human rights or that the right of all peoples to self-determination found in the Covenants does not apply to indigenous peoples, this position needs to be made clear. If indigenous peoples are not regarded as “peoples” for purposes of self-determination, this position needs to be clarified. If these are not their positions, that also should be made clear.

Consultation requires good faith. Consultation mandates that both parties respectfully bring their positions and views to the table and engage in reasonable accommodation. We expect at least this much from Washington.

Suzanne Jasper is the director of First Peoples Human Rights Coalition, a nonprofit educational organization specifically focused on the human rights of indigenous peoples.

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