The General Assembly adopted a landmark declaration outlining the rights of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people and outlawing discrimination against them – a move that followed more than two decades of debate. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been approved after 143 Member States voted in favour, 11 abstained and four – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – voted against the text.
A non-binding text, the Declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues.
The Declaration 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.
General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour have all welcomed today’s adoption.
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 peoples 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, Mr. 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.
Ms. 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 has 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.
Ambassador John McNee of Canada said his country was disappointed to have to vote against the Declaration, but it had “significant concerns” about the language in the document.
The provisions on lands, territories and resources “are overly broad, unclear and capable of a wide variety of interpretations” and could put into question matters that have been settled by treaty, he said.
Mr. McNee said the provisions on the need for States to obtain free, prior and informed consent before it can act on matters affecting indigenous peoples were unduly restrictive, and he also expressed concern that the Declaration negotiation process over the past year had not been “open, inclusive or transparent.”