Published on 26 October 2007
Translations available in: français . Español .

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was passed in the UN General Assembly on 13 August, 2007. Only four states opposed it, NZ, Canada, US and Australia. The key opposition comes from refusal to acknowledge any substantial claims to indigenous sovereignty. The Declaration can be understood as identifying standards for the achievement of rights to be pursued in a spirit of partnership.


NZ Opposes Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples
In New Zealand there has been quite a lot of attention amongst Human Rights and Indigenous networks, to the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was passed by the UN General Assembly on 13th September.

There has been an outcry because of NZ opposition to the Declaration, despite years of advocacy and lobbying from Maori for the NZ government to support this indigenous initiative. The Declaration was passed by 143 votes to 4 (with some abstentions) and the 4 States which opposed the Declaration were New Zealand, Canada, US and Australia. The Declaration was supported by the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, France, Greece, India, Zimbabwe, and Netherlands.

Local Meeting

A meeting last week was called by Maori who have been involved with the Declaration at the UN, to celebrate the Declaration. An historical overview showed that this has been a 22 year process of elaboration of Rights with expansion of the original concepts as well as a process of difficult compromise for political interests.

The compromises came about through re-writings to accommodate the interests of states, including, in NZ’s case, the protection of Crown Sovereignty. A clause states that ‘nothing shall impair territorial integrity between states’. Territorial integrity refers to the capacity for international agreements between states which indigenous peoples are bound to abide by, and which restricts indigenous sovereign capacity. Even with this provision, NZ remained opposed.

A key area identified by one speaker was that opposition by the four states was to protect Free Trade, with the argument that Indigenous Nations Treaty rights might constitute an obstacle to the free trade regime because international free trade agreements rest on non-disputable national sovereignty - so states ensure there is no diminishment of territorial sovereignty.

Overall the Declaration, which consists of 46 Articles, can be said to identify standards of achievement of rights to be pursued in a spirit of partnership. It provides an international and UN sanctioned standard, beyond domestic law.

At the meeting there was discussion of treaties and the way in which national Treaties with indigenous people are all designed to limit the autonomy of indigenous peoples. In the US it was argued that there is no need for a treaty with Indigenous peoples because of the plenary power of Congress. In NZ the Treaty (of Waitangi) is held to be subordinate to Parliamentary sovereignty.

Responsibilities with the Declaration

One of the interesting presentations was from the Human Rights Commission, with whom the Charter Committee has worked. Emphasis was given to Rights and Responsibilities of Indigenous Peoples, and how we might move towards implementation of the provisions of the Declaration. One way is to disseminate information on the articles, and another is to build partnerships based on the Declaration, where reciprocal rights and responsibilities are acknowledged and supported.

The main thing is to recognize that this is only the beginning and now we need to give the Declaration a ‘home’ and to get it implemented in practice

Key Articles

Simple principles of partnership include provision for indigenous people to choose their own representatives at forums (and not have these selected). They also include compensation for the taking of land and other forms of loss.

Key articles include:

- Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination, and to determine their political status.
- The right to distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining the right to participate in the life of the State.
- Right to establish educational systems and provide education in their own languages
- The Right to practice and teach spiritual traditions, to protect privacy of cultural sites and control ceremonial objects, and rights to repatriation of human remains.
- Shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories.
- the Right to development and to determine priorities for their lands, territories or other resources
- the Right to determine the responsibilities of individuals to their communities

A parallel initiative that has been in preparation for more than 20 years, is for the creation of a United League of Indigenous Nations. This Treaty was initiated in August 2007. Core principles of this Treaty include connections with land and passing on ancestral teachings. With an estimated number of 370 million people world wide, such an initiative has potential to build further momentum for recognition.

It is our view that along with intrinsic rights to recognition of Indigenous Peoples, there are corresponding Responsibilities to ensure self determination and uphold Treaties.

One of the deeper aspects of the ‘climate for change’ is a shift towards environmental Responsibility and recognition of the interdependence of people with the earth. The earth centred values and social systems of indigenous traditions are of great importance in support of the wider turn towards cultures of environmental responsiveness.

More details here:
IWGIA – Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
UNPFIL – UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 13 September 2007
UN – General Assembly adopts Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples


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