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UN expert: Governments failing indigenous declaration

U.S. signals willingness to sign agreement it previously rejected

October 26, 2009

New York

A top U.N. expert on human rights law called last week for governments to match their words with deeds and make good on promises to respect indigenous communities’ right to live as they wish.

“The indigenous peoples are suffering everywhere,” James Anaya, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights of indigenous peoples, told a news conference after submitting a comprehensive report to the General Assembly.

Anaya, a law professor who teaches at Harvard University and the University of Arizona, said many governments were failing to abide by the principles laid out in the historic — though non-binding — U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

U.N. figures show there are more than 370 million indigenous peoples in the world. Scientists say their role in the fight against climate change and preservation of biodiversity is vital because they live in close proximity to nature. Though indigenous activists have participated in major U.N. conferences for more than a decade, they never had a say in official discussions on climate change and biodiversity.

Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly by a majority vote in 2007, the declaration recognizes indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination in all spheres of life, including economic and social development, culture, religion and language.

“States must act,” said Anaya, who just returned from Russia to observe indigenous peoples’ situation there. Since beginning his mandate, he has visited Brazil, Nepal, Botswana, Australia, Peru, Colombia and Chile.

Reflecting on his trips to these countries, said the problems facing indigenous peoples were of a “systemic nature” because colonial domination over indigenous populations has persisted for so long. “It has been centuries,” he noted.

The special rapporteur’s report shows that over the past year there have been numerous cases where indigenous communities were subjected to violence, displacement and isolation. It also raises concerns over the situation in Peru and Panama.

Human rights defenders who are active in the Amazon region have repeatedly condemned the Peruvian government for using brutal force to subdue indigenous tribes that oppose encroachment on their lands by commercial concerns.

The government justifies infringement on indigenous land by claiming that commercial use of the land would generate jobs and lead to development.

The U.N. declaration, however, is very clear on this issue, requiring “free, prior, and informed consent” of indigenous peoples for any activity that is geared towards commercial gains on their traditional territories.

The report also raises concerns about the situation in Panama, where authorities are building a large dam in indigenous territory near the Changuinola River.

The indigenous people say they were never asked for permission to build the dam on their territory and consider it a disaster in their lives.

In Anaya’s view, in many countries, there is a “disconnect” between policies on the rights of the indigenous peoples and state priorities for development. This gap needs to be filled, he added.

The special rapporteur noted that some countries were moving in a positive direction by bringing their national laws in line with the principles laid out in the declaration, but added that there was “a lot to be done.”

In this context, he pointed to Chile as a country that was “on the right track.” While indigenous people face persistent problems, he said, the government has indicated it was ready to include indigenous groups in talks on constitutional reforms.

The special rapporteur urged U.N. member states to pursue a range of special measures to engage the various institutions of lawmaking and public administration. “It’s a process that requires the full political engagement and financial commitment,” Anaya said.

Among the world’s major economic powers, the United States and Canada had voted against the historic declaration on indigenous people’s rights, arguing that parts of the declaration undermined state sovereignty.

Both nations strongly opposed the principle of fair and equitable distribution of resources as well as the condition of “informed consent” for the use of aboriginal land. Recently, however, the United States has indicated its willingness to sign on to the declaration.

Despite his criticism, Anaya said in many countries, awareness about native people’s rights and their link with the global environmental movement is on the rise. “Some 20 years ago, there was no legal protection for indigenous peoples. But now it’s different,” he noted.

The special rapporteur praised Norway for including indigenous representatives in decision-making processes at all levels and called for others to follow that country’s example. “States should include indigenous delegates in international talks,” he said.

U.N. figures show there are more than 370 million indigenous peoples in the world. Scientists say their role in the fight against climate change and preservation of biodiversity is vital because they live in close proximity to nature.

Though indigenous activists have participated in major U.N. conferences for more than a decade, they never had a say in official discussions on climate change and biodiversity.

In response to a question, the special rapporteur supported the view that indigenous representatives should not to be restricted to the sidelines and that they should be allowed to take part in international talks, like the climate conference scheduled for December in Copenhagen.

“The U.N. system should be greatly sensitized,” Anaya concluded.

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