UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Sees Shift in Opponents to UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Aotearoa Affirms Indigenous Rights & US Promises to Review Position

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Joshua Cooper
Director INDIG
Director Hawaii Institute for Human Rights

The ninth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues focused on the significant subjects of self-determination and development along with a screening of the film that explains indigenous peoples struggles to protect sacred lands.

The special theme was Indigenous Peoples: Development with culture and identity; articles 3 and 32 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN DRIP).  Director James Cameron screened Avatar to the world’s indigenous peoples and actress Sigourney Weaver participated in a protest to prevent a dam construction in Brazil.

The central legal concept that highlighted the human rights concerns was Free, Prior and Informed Consent regarding development on indigenous lands. The philosophy and practice for Free, Prior and Informed Consent was recognized to be able to create a new process for indigenous peoples to preview new developments and also to participate positively.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the indigenous peoples to the UN General Assembly hall where the opening ceremony and a portion of the two week meeting took place.

“You have a unique place in the global community,” said SG Ban Ki-moon at the opening. “You are full and equal members of the UN family.”

Since the UN DRIP adoption, UN officials have recognized its significance for previous harms and futures forged between states and indigenous peoples. SG Ban Ki-moon commented on the UN DRIP, “In that landmark document, UN Member States and indigenous peoples sought to reconcile with their painful histories and resolved to move forward together towards human rights, justice and development for all.”

While the adoption on 13 September 2007 has been the main focus, there has also been considerable mobilization concerning the four countries that voted no – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America.

Aotearoa (New Zealand) reversed its position at the opening ceremony on 19 April in the same UN General Assembly chamber.

Minister of Maori Affairs Dr. Pita Sharples looked over the sea of over one thousand indigenous peoples and states proclaiming, “Today, New Zealand changes its position: we are pleased to express our support for the Declaration.”

“The Declaration is an historic achievement…The Declaration acknowledges the distinctive and important status of indigenous peoples, their common historical experiences and the universal spirit that underpins its text,” Sharples sad.

“New Zealand’s support for the Declaration represents an opportunity to acknowledge and restate the special cultural and historical position of Maori as the original inhabitants – the tangata whenua – of New Zealand, Sharples said. “It reflects our continuing endeavors to work together to find solutions and underlines the importance of the relationship between Maori and the Crown under the Treaty of Waitangi.”

An applause filled the air in the assembly and the Kanaka Maoli delegation of Hawaii chanted as a haka ceremony was performed to conclude the opening ceremony.

This leaves only Canada and the United States to officially adopt the UN DRIP along with some abstentions to secure universal recognition of the human rights of indigenous peoples.

There was also coincidentally a half day discussion on North America focusing only on the United States of America and Canada as that agenda item opens to various regions every year.

Perhaps to prevent a more negative review and also to express the position of the new Obama administration, the United States first intervention at the ninth session surprised many participants along with the full delegation representing various US agencies.

U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice gave one of the most powerful statements regarding the U.S. position on the UN DRIP. It was a welcome to have such a voice coming from the U.S. delegation considering the normal participation in the UN PFII since its inception in 2001 has been an empty chair behind the US name placard.

Ambassador Rice described the US position regarding the UN DRIP. “…I am pleased to announce that the United States has decided to review our position regarding the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We recognize that, for many around the world, this Declaration provides a framework for addressing indigenous issues….And as we move ahead, we look forward to consulting extensively with our valued and experienced colleagues in the federally recognized Indian tribes and interested nongovernmental organizations.”

An important recognition noted by Ambassador Rice described the developing relationship, “President Obama is deeply committed to strengthening and building on government-to-government relationships among the United States and our tribal governments.”

Obama hosted a White House Tribal Nations Conference to enact an Executive Order on Consultation and Coordination with Tribal Governments regarding indigenous representatives in development of regulatory policies relating to indigenous implications. This was to illustrate the theme of the annual PFII meeting.

Rice noted, “Nearly 500 tribal leaders participated – the most widely attended White House tribal meeting with the President, Cabinet Secretaries, senior officials, and members of Congress in U.S. history.”

Indigenous peoples around the world were impressed with Rice’s comment, “What is true in the Americas is true around the world. There is no history that does not take into account the story of indigenous populations – their proud traditions, their rich cultures, and their contributions to our shared heritage and identity.”

Ambassador Rice also commented on a foreign policy that would respect the human rights of indigenous peoples worldwide including efforts to curb actions of corporations in indigenous communities.

“The United States also supports programs that help indigenous communities around the world,” Rice said. “We are especially committed to promoting corporate social responsibility, particularly with extractive industries whose operations can so dramatically affect the living conditions of indigenous Peoples. The United States has therefore engaged in a multi-stakeholder initiative to encourage firms to operate safely within a framework that full respects the rights of surrounding communities.”

More importantly this statement was also followed up with a meeting between the U.S. delegation and indigenous peoples at the U.S. mission to the United Nations later in the week. It was a positive dialogue. However, the delegation headed by Native American Policy Advisor Kimberly Teehee didn’t answer questions regarding a timeframe for adoption after a series of questions all asking for clarification on the timetable.

The new tradition of the comprehensive dialogue with United Nations agencies and funds focused predominantly on Convention on Biological Diversity before its adoption of a protocol at its November meeting in Japan.  Indigenous delegates noted that the UN DRIP articles 3 and 32 weren’t being incorporated and included in the new protocol.

A main focus was also the discussion on forests in relation to the larger global conversation on climate change. This portion of the agenda was heavily influenced by indigenous peoples returning from the Pacha Mama Mother Earth Rights global meeting sponsored by Bolivia in Cochabamba to provide an alternative agenda for the upcoming Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010.

SG Ban Ki-moon’s comments capture the necessity for the ninth session’s theme, “We need development that is underpinned by the values of reciprocity, solidarity and collectivity. And we need development that allows indigenous peoples to exercise their right to self-determination through participation in decision-making on an equal basis.”

A protest organized by a coalition of NGOs including Land is Life captured headlines around the world with Sigourney Weaver against a dam in Brazil. Another protest coordinated by the Pacific Caucus focused on nuclear abolition in connection with the Comprehensive Test Ban summit taking place immediately after the UN PFII.

The report was adopted by consensus in the final session of the UN PFII on 30 April allowing for participants to see direct result of their two weeks at the UN headquarters.

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