Declaration is no threat to States

26 October 2006

by Adelfo Regino and Gustavo Torres

A panel discussion on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was held today at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The event was co-sponsored by several European and Latin American countries, and specialised agencies of the UN. The panel was conducted by Mrs Elissavet Stamantopoulou-Robbins, from the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Affairs.

Mrs Silvia Escobar, Ambassador of the Special Mission for human rights related affairs in Spain recognised the importance of the Declaration for indigenous peoples and States, as it has been a unique process at the UN, which reflects the greater feasibility of consensus reached by States and indigenous peoples. She mentioned that Spain and the Spaniards support the Declaration because they consider it a necessary instrument, and urged for its approval in the Third Committee and General Assembly.

Mr. Luis Enrique Chávez, Permanent Associate Representative of Peru at the United Nations and President-Rapporteur of the Work Group for the elaboration of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was also present at the panel. In Mr Chávezs view, the declaration, like any text, is not perfect and, as such, has its limitations. However, it represents a starting point for a new process in which a new relationship between States and Indigenous Peoples will be edified. He stated that the Declaration is an instrument that is not aimed at creating conflicts, but, rather, seeks to avoid them within a framework of good faith.

He explained that the Declaration does not contain any threats for States in terms of their territorial integrity and article 46 is very clear in this respect. He said it would not be possible for the Declaration not to be ambiguous, but this is a virtue rather than a defect. He added that the Declaration does not codify preferential rights, but recognises specific rights aimed at protecting a vulnerable social group. He states that it is not a consensual text, but this should not be reason for concern in the human rights field, as it is increasingly difficult to reach unanimity in these matters. In the face of this situation, he said the most important thing is to make the decision to support indigenous peoples. For this purpose, he asked member States of the General Assembly to provide an overwhelming support for the Declaration. He finally said that States that have doubts regarding the Declaration will be reconciled with its content with time and in their everyday relations with indigenous peoples. The Declarations ultimate end is to create a new relationship between States and Indigenous Peoples.

Mrs. Xóchitl Gálvez, General Director of the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, said indigenous people from all over the world have their hopes pinned on the Declaration. She mentioned that something must be wrong in Mexico, because the greatest biodiversity, riches, oil, minerals, resources, etc. are in indigenous regions, but indigenous peoples are the poorest in the country. In the same way, the relationship is unbalanced in terms of north and south. Indigenous poverty and marginalisation have been justified as being the result of their particular culture and civilisation; this justification has been used by politicians to assume that exclusion and poverty is the result of a bad relationship between States and indigenous peoples. The Declaration will therefore help improve this relationship.

Xóchitl Gálvez requested that the countries that do not have indigenous populations support the Declaration, although her message was aimed at countries with indigenous populations who are unsure whether to support it, as this could mean the loss of hope, and of legal and institutional means to recognise and respect their rights. As an example, she said that the armed movement in Mexico should be an experience for other countries, because since Mexicos recognition of self-determination, no indigenous peoples have sought to splinter off. Finally, she stated that the Declaration will be very encouraging for indigenous peoples and will improve the relationship with national States. It is not a binding document, but each State will have to make its own internal reading and adapt its legislation.

In turn, Mrs Astrid Helle Ajamay, Advising Minister of Norways Permanent Mission at International Organisations, based in Geneva, pointed out that the Declaration is the result of a long process of formal and informal consultations in which many compromises were reached in order to solve problems. The Declaration is therefore the best compromise that could realistically be reached. It was a unique process and negotiation at the UN. Although consensus was not reached, this is not unknown in the human rights context. She stated that the Declaration will serve as an understanding and worthy framework to improve relations with indigenous peoples. One of the key aspects, she highlighted, is self-determination and she gave the example of the Saami. She pointed out that self-determination must be understood as a way of promoting indigenous peoples participation in a democratic society. At the same time, she said that self-determination must be practiced according to international law. Finally, she concluded that the Declarations adoption is a commitment with human rights and, for this reason, Norway will adopt it. It may be said that Norway does not have indigenous peoples, but it is also not a State in which there are forced disappearances and they will nonetheless also vote in favour of this instrument.

Finally, there was an intervention by Mr. Craig Mokhiber, the Official in charge of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Office, based in New York. Craig Mokhiber said he was moved by the instruments adoption and recalled how necessary it has been since 1989, when the negotiations for ILO Convention 169 were coming to an end in Geneva. It is therefore a historic achievement and development; an excellent tool for those who work on human rights.

for more information
on the Declaration

Permanent Forum on
Indigenous Issues

Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights

Documentation Centre
for Indigenous Peoples

Tebtebba Foundation

International Indian Treaty Council

American Indian Law Alliance

International Work Group
for Indigenous Affairs

Rights and Democracy

Amnesty International, Canada

University of Minnesota
Human Rights Library

(Download Kit)

Letter to States by
Special Rapporteur & Chair of PFII

Letter to States by
Indigenous Peoples Caucus

Letter to States by
Ambassadors to UN

Ten Key Points

Declaration (download)

How States voted in the
Human Rights Council