WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said Thursday that the United States will reverse course and support a United Nations declaration defending the rights of indigenous peoples.
Obama told Native American leaders that the declaration affirms the importance and rich cultures of native peoples throughout the world. The U.S. voted against the declaration when the General Assembly adopted it in 2007, arguing it was incompatible with existing laws. Three other countries, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, also opposed the declaration, but have since announced their support.
The declaration is intended to protect the rights of more than 370 million native peoples worldwide, affirming their equality and ability to maintain their own institutions, cultures and spiritual traditions. It sets standards to fight discrimination and marginalization and eliminate human rights violations.
Administration officials said last April that they were reviewing the U.S. position on the declaration. The State Department called the decision to support the declaration a “meaningful change in the U.S. position.”
While not legally binding, the declaration “carries considerable moral and political force and complements the president’s ongoing efforts to address historical inequities faced by indigenous communities in the United States,” the department said in a statement.
Obama noted that this year he signed laws to improve health care and law enforcement for Native American tribes and helped resolve long-standing disputes over discrimination against American Indian farmers by the Agriculture Department and mistreatment by the Interior Department of those with royalty rights for oil, gas, grazing and timber.
“We’re making progress. We’re moving forward. And what I hope is that we are seeing a turning point in the relationship between our nations,” Obama told a conference of tribal nations attended by more than 500 people representing more than 320 tribes.
Robert Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, an advocacy group, called the U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples the most significant development in international human rights law in decades.
The U.S. endorsement “reflects the worldwide acceptance of indigenous peoples and our governments as a permanent part of the world community and the countries where we live,” Coulter said.