United Nations’ dream declaration won’t help indigenous people
The U.N. General Assembly has approved a declaration calling for greater rights for indigenous peoples.
ADVOCATES for native peoples have won a feel-good declaration by the United Nations that will not further their cause. Instead, the nonbinding U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples lacks realistic goals that could have furthered the development of self-governing entities in Hawaii and elsewhere. What has been hailed by some as a landmark declaration was instead a missed opportunity.
The declaration was approved by the U.N. General Assembly last week by a vote of 143-4, with 11 abstentions. Importantly, the negative votes were cast by the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The approval followed more than two decades of negotiations, ending with the exclusion of the United States and Australia from talks where final agreement was reached on the amended text.
The provision that killed any opportunity for the big players to support the declaration stated that "indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired." Implementation of such a policy could reopen U.S. negotiations with Indian tribes and strip non-Hawaiians of land ownership in the islands.
"It appears to require recognition of rights to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens, both indigenous and nonindigenous," said Parekura Horomia, New Zealand minister of Maori affairs. "This ignores contemporary reality and would be impossible to implement."
Most of the declaration is laudable, calling on nations to honor religious and cultural traditions, grant indigenous peoples the right to manage their own education systems and protect natives against discrimination. General Assembly President Haya Al Khalifa called it "a triumph for indigenous peoples around the world." However, it is no triumph when it is nonbinding and is rejected by the countries that have the most authority over native peoples.
One provision that could have been useful if the United States had signed on says: "Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions."
Limiting the goal of autonomy to that would have put pressure on the Bush administration to accept Hawaiian sovereignty as proposed by Sen. Daniel Akaka. The White House has indicated that it opposes the Akaka Bill, and the hallucination of a land grab made rejection of the U.N. declaration too easy.
"We're not standing against the issue," said Benjamin Chang, a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., calling the text confusing and unclear. "We want one that is universal in its scope and can be implemented. What was done (Thursday) is not clear. The way it stands now is subject to multiple interpretations and doesn't establish a clear universal principle."