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Debate Continues Over Articles in the Draft Declaration

The first half of the 10th session of the Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (WGDD), in Geneva, Switzerland, concludes today.

Convened from September 13 through 24, this is the first of two additional meetings funded by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in an effort to reach consensus around the Draft Declaration this year. The second meeting will take place from November 29 through December 3, also in Geneva.

Indigenous peoples around the globe have been awaiting affirmation of their basic human rights through the Draft Declaration. Mililani Trask, the former Pacific representative to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, told Cultural Survival, "In the many years that the Declaration has languished, we have seen expanding acts of violence all over the world, bloodshed, and regions and governments being destabilized."

The WGDD is under increased pressure to reach a consensus on the Draft Declaration by December 31, the close of the International Decade. Currently, only two of the Draft Declaration's 45 articles, articles five and 43, have been agreed upon. Article five states that every indigenous individual has a right to a nationality, while article 43 extends the rights of the Draft Declaration equally to males and females.

In 1993, when the United Nations declared the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People from 1995 to 2004, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights established and mandated that the WGDD complete a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for consideration and adoption before the conclusion of the decade. The WGDD is comprised of state representatives, although indigenous peoples and organizations can participate in the process.

The most frequent objections to the Declaration have come from a small contingent of state representatives, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, mirroring events at the ninth session of the WGDD, where "a lack of political will and commitment on the part of a small number of governments ... managed to hinder any possibility of progress," as reported by the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs.

The UK repeatedly expressed its opinion that the term 'peoples' should be changed to either 'people' or 'individuals.' This suggestion by the UK encountered strong opposition from indigenous groups including the American Indian Law Alliance (AILA), International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), Associacion Napguana, Asian Indigenous Caucus, Indian Council of South America (CISA), and representatives from Guatemala, Mexico, and Bolivia, who agreed that the term indigenous 'peoples' must be maintained within the declaration. The UK also persistently voiced its objection to the use of the word 'rights' in the declaration, a proposal that indigenous organizations interpreted as directly opposed to the purpose of the WGDD as an indigenous rights document.

The UK, US, and Japan all expressed their reservations about self-determination for indigenous peoples. Article three of the Draft Declaration expresses indigenous peoples' right to self-determination, while article eight states, "indigenous peoples have the collective and individual right to maintain and develop their distinct identities and characteristics, including the right to identify themselves as indigenous and to be recognized as such." The US is concerned that this provision will take the ability to determine indigenousness away from states and give it to indigenous peoples, threatening states' sovereignty.

In response to concerns about self-determination, several indigenous organizations united in a proposal that would add a paragraph to the preamble urging harmonious cooperation between states and indigenous peoples based on principles of justice, democracy, and respect for human rights.

The Document Center for Indigenous Peoples (doCip) reported in their May-June 2004 update that, even with added sessions, "it is difficult to see how, under these conditions, a consensus could suddenly be reached after nine years of discussion without consensus." As of now, it appears that their doubts will be justified.

Special thanks to Sezin Rajandran for contributing to this report. Rajandran works with the International Programme for Funding Indigenous Leaders in Geneva.