US Endorses UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

December 17, 2010
By: Nick Engelfried
 
On Friday, President Barack Obama announced the United States will endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, lending US support to an effort designed to help repair some of the historical injustices done to indigenous communities throughout the world.  The Obama administration’s decision is a reversal from the former US position, taken in 2007 when President George W. Bush decided not to endorse the declaration.

Though the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is not a legally binding treaty, it provides clear guidelines that nations concerned about the rights of their indigenous populations should follow.  For example, Article 3 of the declaration states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”  Article 10 of the says, “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories,” while Article 20 states, “Indigenous peoples deprived of their means of subsistence and development are entitled to just and fair redress.” 

Other parts of the declaration establish that indigenous communities and individuals should be allowed to maintain their traditional culture, religion, and language, should be guaranteed full economic and political rights, and should be protected from forced assimilation into another culture.  In many respects the declaration represents an acknowledgement by world leaders that indigenous peoples around the world are still being subjected to discrimination and cultural prejudice, and that more is needed from national governments to ensure their rights are fully respected.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was first adopted by the United Nations in 2007.  At that time only four UN countries declined to endorse the resolution: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.  Perhaps not coincidentally, all four of these countries have relatively large populations of indigenous inhabitants, and so are affected by the resolution more than others.  However after at first rejecting the resolution, both New Zealand and Australia decided to grant their endorsements after all.  In April of 2010, President Obama said the US would reconsider its position.  Then in November Canada granted its endorsement, leaving the US the only country not to support the declaration.  Today’s announcement from President Obama means the declaration is universally supported by UN countries.

The announcement has already been hailed by human rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.  It is also welcomed by environmental groups that frequently partner with indigenous communities who want to preserve their traditional way of life.  The Rainforest Action Network (RAN), for instance, has applauded President Obama for reversing the US position.  “This is an enormously important announcement,” said RAN’s Mike Gaworecki in an email to supporters.  “There is now a global consensus that will improve the lives of Indigenous peoples everywhere.”

For years RAN has been working with indigenous communities from Canada to Ecuador who are trying to regain control of their lands and prevent environmentally destructive activity there.  Right now RAN’s Change Chevron campaign is seeking to draw attention to a class-action lawsuit filed by indigenous communities in Ecuador against Chevron Corporation for polluting their land and water.  While drilling for oil in the Ecuadorean Amazon between 1964 and 1990, a company later acquired by Chevron (Texaco) released over eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste into the water supply of local communities. 

RAN points to the Chevron case an example of the kinds of abuses of indigenous rights still going on in the world today.  Though adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples doesn’t guarantee an end to destruction of traditional lands, it does provide a framework for governments to follow when dealing with companies like Chevron.  It remains to be seen how countries like the United States will adhere to the guidelines laid out in the declaration, and in doing so bolster protection of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Photo credit: Keith Kristoffer Bacongco

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