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Indigenous Human Rights Negotiations Progress

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Indigenous Human Rights Negotiations Progress

(javascript:PrintWindow();) Posted: December 30, 2005 by: _Valerie Taliman_
( / Indian Country Today

GENEVA - Native delegations at the United Nations are making progress in
negotiations toward the eventual adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples, an unprecedented set of standards that would define and
protect the international human rights of indigenous peoples.

The Indian Law Resource Center, Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Navajo Nation and
Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) are among the lead advocates for
creating strong rights for self-determination and self-governance as consultations
continued through mid-December in the U.N. Working Group on the Draft
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

''The Navajo Nation is here to help the world community understand that
First Nations have the right to sovereignty over its lands and territories. It's
important for them to understand that our rights as indigenous peoples were
not granted by any country. They are inherent,'' said Navajo Nation Council
Delegate Ervin Keeswood.

Debate has been sharp - particularly on land and natural resources - as
member countries of the U.N. and indigenous peoples work toward building
understanding and consensus on specific issues affecting the territorial, political,
economic, legal, social and cultural rights of the world's 360 million
indigenous peoples.

''There have been huge divisions and passionate debates in crafting language
for articles that can reach consensus,'' said attorney Tim Coulter,
executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont. and Washington,
D.C., who has been extensively involved in drafting the declaration for 29

''Slowly we are overcoming tremendous differences despite the fact that
there are indigenous peoples from literally all over the world - Africa, Asia,
Pacific Islands, Mexico, South America, the Arctic - with different backgrounds
and different situations to consider. What we have in common is our work

defending our rights to determine our own futures, our own laws, our own

Indigenous delegates have been educating countries about indigenous
positions on self-determination, the preservation of cultural and spiritual
traditions, collective land and natural resource rights, border-crossing, and their
right to exist as distinct nations and tribes.

''The process is advancing and we are having some notable success in
discussions,'' said Darwin Hill, a representative of the Haudenosaunee. ''We have
been telling the U.S. delegates they need to be more flexible in their
positions. By providing them with a steady dialogue and education on our issues over
the years, they are gaining greater understanding of our concerns.''

Consensus in the U.N. Working Group is forming around a land rights article
that states: ''Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and
control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of
traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those
which they have otherwise acquired.''

The declaration would call on countries to give full legal recognition and
protection to these lands and resources in accordance with the customs,
traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.

''In light of many unfortunate developments in Indian country regarding
relationships with countries, the Navajo Nation is exercising its sovereignty at
the international level and actively engaging in making international laws,''
said Rex Lee Jim, Navajo Council delegate from Rock Point who also serves on
the Navajo Judiciary Committee.

''We know that laws made in Geneva eventually become laws in nations. It may
take years, but these laws eventually will impact the Navajo Nation. It is
in our best interest in the long run that we are involved in making laws that
affect us.''

Some countries have tried to limit jurisdiction and control over land and
resources. Much of the world's remaining natural resources are on lands owned
by indigenous peoples, who often suffer severe negative impacts from
development projects undertaken without their informed consent or appropriate

Indigenous delegates are also seeking redress for lands and resources taken
in the past. One article of the declaration provides for claims for return of
land or compensation.

Armand MacKenzie, attorney for the mineral-rich Innu Nation in northern
Quebec and Labrador, repeatedly argued for just and fair compensation for Native
people who have been relocated from their homelands and deprived of their
traditional hunting and gathering territories.

MacKenzie, who is involved in a major land claim for his people, said that
while significant progress has occurred in negotiations over the last year, it
is fundamental that the declaration contain provisions for Native people to
retain as much control as possible over their homelands.

''There are some difficult areas concerning land and resource rights that
have taken years to resolve, but we are committed to negotiating in the best
interest of our people back home. It's their land and way of life that we are
fighting for,'' he said.

Another area that remains a point of contention is the spiritual and
cultural relationships Native peoples have with their homelands.

Current language in the declaration would require countries to give legal
respect to the lands that indigenous peoples hold collectively, including their
aboriginal lands, and to ensure access to areas with spiritual and cultural
significance that are no longer owned by indigenous peoples.

Coulter said there is an unusual flexibility and good will on the part of a
number of countries - including Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Spain and
Brazil, in particular - to recognize collective rights and rights to
self-determination that have in the past presented a great many problems.

''One topic that has not been easily understood is [that of the] collective
rights that indigenous peoples have to land and culture,'' he said. ''In most
countries, the emphasis is on individual rights. They have had to learn
about our cultures and traditions to understand the importance of collective
rights. A few years ago, they would not even talk about it. Now they are agreeing
to collective rights, which is something new in international law.''

As the second week came to a close, 23 of the 67 draft provisions have been
agreed upon.

''I think these should be provisionally adopted when the Working Group
reconvenes in January. This is very encouraging,'' Coulter said. The U.N. Working
Group will have a five-day session in Geneva beginning Jan. 30.

Ambassador Tyge Lehmann from Denmark urged all delegations to move forward
with compromise in order to push for adoption by the U.N. General Assembly as
early as next year.

''At the United Nations in September, 191 nation-states talked extensively
about advancing the world's indigenous peoples. Governments were urged to
consider adopting the declaration as soon as possible,'' he said. ''For the first
time ever, we have a very positive signal indicating an expectation that we
will see adoption of these rights very soon.''

The declaration contains 20 introductory paragraphs and 47 articles covering
a wide range of human rights, spanning spiritual beliefs, language, lands,
natural resources, education, and economic and social issues. If adopted, it
will be the most comprehensive statement on the rights of indigenous peoples
ever developed.

The declaration must reach consensus in the Human Rights Commission of the
United Nations before being adopted by the General Assembly, a process that
many hope will be completed within the next year if negotiations continue well.

Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is director of communications for the Indian Law

Resource Center. For more information, visit or call (406)
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