In an historic session of the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted. This Declaration, which outlines the basic rights and fundamental freedoms of the world’s Indigenous Peoples, has been in the making for nearly 25 years.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, indigenous Igarot activist from the Philippines and Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, stated: “The 13th of September 2007 will be remembered as an international human rights day for the Indigenous Peoples of the world, a day that the United Nations and its Member States, together with Indigenous Peoples, reconciled with past painful histories and decided to march into the future on the path of human rights.”
Tauli-Corpuz went on to say that she is committed to ensuring that the work of the Permanent Forum will remain dedicated to the implementation of the Declaration, and called upon nation-states to do the same: “Effective implementation of the Declaration will be the test of commitment of States and the whole international community to protect, respect and fulfill indigenous peoples collective and individual human rights. I call on governments, the UN system, Indigenous Peoples and civil society at large to rise to the historic task before us and make the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a living document for the common future of humanity.”
Over 100 Indigenous leaders and representatives from around the world were present in the General Assembly during the debate and adoption of the Declaration. Although Declarations are usually adopted by consensus in the General Assembly, some states retained opposition to this human rights instrument and the governments of the United States, Australia and New Zealand called for a vote in order to register their dissent. Only four states voted against (these states with the addition of Canada), while 143 states voted in favor with 11 abstentions.
Despite the negative votes, the Declaration represents a significant achievement for both Indigenous peoples and nation-states. Les Malezer, Chair of the Global Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, recognized the unique nature of this human rights document: “The Declaration does not represent solely the viewpoint of the United Nations, nor does it represent solely the viewpoint of the Indigenous Peoples. It is a Declaration which combines our views and interests and which sets the framework for the future. It is a tool for peace and justice, based upon mutual recognition and mutual respect.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine denounced this Canadian stance: “The Assembly of First Nations and other representatives of Indigenous peoples in Canada offered to work with the government to address the concerns it had and to come to a solution, but that offer was refused. Canada prides itself as a protector of human rights. It is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, yet it is disappointing today to see this government vote against recognizing the basic rights of Canada’s First Peoples. This is a stain on the country’s international reputation.”
Governmental and Indigenous representatives continue to make statements in support of the adoption of the Declaration.