The United Nations General Assembly is expected to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples today, over the objections of the United States and Canada, among other nations.
“Up to now, countries all over the world have treated indigenous peoples as if their existence is just temporary,” said Robert “Tim” Coulter, director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena and the original author of the document. “The declaration signals a fundamental change in that understanding.”
Though nonbinding, the document recognizes the right of groups of indigenous people to self-determination inside nations. It sets global human rights standards for the world’s 370 million indigenous people, some of whom continue to endure abuse, land seizures and extermination, particularly in developing countries.
Such rights in the past have been extended only to all people of a country, colony or territory.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman told The Spokesman-Review that while the United States affords indigenous people far more collective rights than most countries, it has “procedural and substantive objections” to the declaration.
“Unfortunately, the declaration that will be considered this week by the U.N. General Assembly is neither clear nor capable of being implemented,” Nancy Beck, a State Department press officer, said Tuesday.
The declaration, worked out over 30 years by indigenous delegates to the United Nations, was adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council in June 2006 despite objections by several countries.
Beck said nations did not have the opportunity to collectively consider the declaration before it was brought before the Human Rights Council.
A vote by the 192-member Security Council was delayed for more than a year until this week amid concerns by a group of African nations about some of the declaration’s language on self-determination and the document’s definition of “indigenous people.”
Those concerns apparently have now been resolved by minor changes, Coulter said.
Colville Tribe in support
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking in Sydney, Australia, earlier this week, signaled his government’s intention to vote against the declaration. On Tuesday, the State Department also expressed its opposition.
“In its current state, the declaration is subject to multiple interpretations,” Beck said. “This will lead to endless disputes about what the declaration means.”
But to Coulter and other indigenous leaders, it is traditional interpretations of indigenous rights, such as those held by the United States and Canada, that make the declaration so necessary, particularly with regard to land and resources.
International rights, including the right to freely cross international borders, are of profound concern to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, whose traditional lands straddle the border between Canada and the U.S. “We have fallen into the cracks of both systems, and nobody seems to care about our fate,” said Michael Marchand, chairman of the Colville Tribal Business Council.
Marchand said the 12 bands that his government represents “happen to be on the U.S. side of the border,” but they have not given up sovereign rights to lands in Canada. The Colvilles are engaged in legal battles with the Canadian government to restore fisheries in the upper Okanagan River and to clean up Columbia River contamination by Teck Cominco in British Columbia. None of these issues, he said, has been resolved by the laws of either the United States or Canada.
“Canada has taken the position that we are extinct, that the border extinguished whatever rights we may have had in Canada,” Marchand said. “In our view, the lands are still ours, we have never sold them, we never signed any treaty, and we did not give them away. We want them back.”
First drafted in 1976
The document that has emerged in the United Nations has undergone considerable revision since Coulter’s original draft, written in 1976, demanded international recognition of the right of indigenous people to self-determination and to protection of the environment as a human right.
In 1977, a revised document was brought before the United Nations by 100 delegates representing indigenous peoples.
It was not until 1983 that the United Nations set up a working group to consider the declaration, Coulter said. The draft to be voted on today was created with the participation of at least 900 people meeting every year since then.
By this measure, Coulter said, “It is the largest, most extensive human rights effort the U.N. has ever been engaged in.”
Though nations will not legally be bound to abide by the declaration, Coulter said, the document will be a significant “political and moral force,” which will likely lead to binding international law.
Many issues of importance to American Indian communities are covered in the document, including the right to culture and heritage, the right to participate in the politics of the country, the right to custody and protection of children, control of natural resources, and border crossing rights.
The U.N. declaration will not change U.S. law right away, Coulter said. “But it is a powerful expression of legal rules recognized around the world. It will, over time, have a profound impact over what the courts, Congress and the executive branch do.”