14 September 2007

Guyana Votes for New UN Declaration

Guyana backs UN declaration on indigenous rights
STABROEK NEWS, Georgetown, Guyana
Friday, September 14th 2007

Guyana was among 143 UN member states which voted in favour of adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday.

Contacted on Guyana's voting, Director General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Elisabeth Harper said Guyana voted in favour of the declaration, which had the backing of other Caricom countries.

Two non-governmental organizations with large indigenous peoples membership - the Amerindian People's Association (APA) and the Guyanese Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP) - had called on the government to support the declaration on the occasion of World Indigenous People's Day observed on August 9.

At the time the government had expressed some reservations and urged a redraft of some sections including a definition of who could be considered an indigenous person. The Amerindian Action Movement of Guyana (TAAMOG) had supported the government's position on a redraft.

Guyana's indigenous people account for some 10 per cent of the population. A Reuters report yesterday said that under negotiation for 20 years, the document says that indigenous people, whose number has been put at 270 million worldwide as understood by the declaration, "have the right to self-determination."

One of its most controversial articles, according to Reuters, states that "indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired." That could potentially put in question most of the land ownership in countries, such as those that opposed the declaration, whose present population is largely descended from settlers who took over territory from previous inhabitants.

A balancing clause inserted at a late stage in the text says nothing in it can authorize or encourage "any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity" of states, Reuters noted.

That was not good enough for the four objectors, notably Canada, where the issue has become a political football. Many of Canada's 1 million aboriginal and Inuit people live in overcrowded, unsanitary housing and suffer high rates of unemployment, substance abuse and suicide.

"The provisions in the declaration on lands, territories and resources are overly broad, unclear, and capable of a wide variety of interpretations," Canada's U.N. Ambassador John McNee told the General Assembly, according to Reuters.

That stance was attacked by Canada's left-leaning opposition New Democrats. "It's very disappointing. I think it's cowardly and very un-Canadian ... we pride ourselves on being advocates for human rights," legislator Jean Crowder told Reuters.

U.S. delegate Robert Hagen said the U.N. Human Rights Council, which prepared the text, had not sought consensus. "This declaration was adopted ... in a splintered vote. This process was unfortunate and extraordinary," he said.

A release from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples issued yesterday said that 143 of the 192-member body voted in favour of the declaration; four voted against; and eleven abstained.

Those voting against were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Those abstaining were Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine.

The declaration, which outlines the rights of the world's estimated 370 million indigenous people and outlaws discrimination against them, has been in the making for over 22 years with several drafts written and rewritten.

The declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples. These include their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. It emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations. It also prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them, and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.

A release from the Indigenous Peoples Caucus said the declaration represents a significant recognition of the basic rights and fundamental freedoms of the world's indigenous peoples who belong to more than 5,000 distinct nations and groups around the world. It encourages harmonious and cooperative relations between nation states and indigenous peoples and recognises a wide array of rights specific to indigenous peoples around the globe.

The release noted that indigenous peoples continue to suffer human rights abuses such as forced relocation and assimilation; seizure and exploitation of their lands, territories and natural resources; discrimination and a disproportionate amount of poverty. It said that indigenous languages, cultures and ways of life continue to be threatened without international legal protection.

A UN press release issued after the vote quoted General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour as welcoming the adoption of the declaration.

Sheikha Haya said "The importance of this document for indigenous peoples and, more broadly, for the human rights agenda, cannot be underestimated. By adopting the declaration, we are also taking another major step forward towards the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all."

But she warned that "even with this progress, indigenous people still face marginalization, extreme poverty and other human rights violations. They are often dragged into conflicts and land disputes that threaten their way of life and very survival; and, suffer from a lack of access to health care and education."

In a statement released by his spokesperson, Ban described the declaration's adoption as "a historic moment when UN Member States and indigenous peoples have reconciled with their painful histories and are resolved to move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all."

He called on governments and civil society to ensure that the declaration's vision becomes a reality by working to integrate indigenous rights into their policies and programmes.

Arbour noted that the declaration has been "a long time coming. But the hard work and perseverance of indigenous peoples and their friends and supporters in the international community have finally borne fruit in the most comprehensive statement to date of indigenous peoples' rights."

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues estimates there are more than 370 million indigenous people in some 70 countries worldwide. Members of the forum said earlier this year that the declaration creates no new rights and does not place indigenous peoples in a special category.

"This declaration is the least that could be approved to give us all instruments recognizing the existence of indigenous people," Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, himself indigenous, told the General Assembly, according to Reuters.

"It is an important step for indigenous people to do away with discrimination, to strengthen the identity, to recognize our right to land and natural resources, to be consulted, to participate in decisions," the minister said.

Most U.S. allies, including Britain and Japan, also voted for the declaration, saying last minute amendments had made it acceptable, given that it did not have the force of international law.

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