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The Declaration Needs Greater Awareness

The following is an excerpt of Indigenous Rights Radio interviews conducted with Indigenous leaders about their reflections on the accomplishments and challenges of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

S. James Anaya, Dean of the University of Colorado Law School, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

My expectations have been held up in certain ways, and in other ways there have been some disappointments. There have been victories across the globe, and many cases in which Indigenous Peoples have used the Declaration to raise awareness and to create understanding about their rights and even movement towards the implementations of the rights articulated in the Declaration.

In Belize, the Declaration was used just weeks after it was adopted by the UN General Assembly in litigation of a court case about Maya land rights. The Supreme Court of Belize referenced the Declaration in order to interpret that country’s constitution, and did so to affirm that the right to property under the constitution should be interpreted in line with the Declaration’s lands and resources provisions. The Court ruled in favor of the Maya people and their rights over their traditional tional lands. There’s a lot to be done in the future towards greater awareness about the rights of Indigenous Peoples as expressed in the Declaration.

Across the globe on a daily basis, the rights affirmed in the Declaration are ignored or violated. My hope is that over time, the Declaration will become a greater source of awareness on the part of powerful actors and that it will become a stronger guide for States and others to act in accordance with the terms of the Declaration. One of the disappointments is in the UN system itself, in which in many instances deliberations do not follow the Declaration completely. We even hear States within the UN system at times wanting to retreat from some of the provisions of the Declaration.

In the U.S., we have seen that under the previous Administration the Declaration was in many ways taken into account by certain government agencies. Ever since President Obama endorsed the Declaration on behalf of the United States and declared that it would be a guide for U.S. action with regards to Indigenous Peoples, we did see some initiatives along those lines including in regard to consulting with Indigenous Peoples, land claims, and certain cultural issues.

In Latin America, we have seen the Declaration and also other international instruments concerning Indigenous Peoples, in particular International Labor Organization Convention 169, having an influence on government policy. For example, in the area of consultation with Indigenous Peoples, we see a number of countries in Latin America moving toward trying to develop adequate consultation mechanisms in line with the Declaration and ILO Convention 169. Unfortunately, in most cases those policy reforms have not been converted into action.

Globally, I think we have a mixed situation because a number of countries outside the America region, particularly in Asia and Africa, decline to acknowledge that there are Indigenous Peoples in their respective countries or that the Declaration is relevant to their countries because they argue that all peoples are Indigenous. We have seen a number of countries in Asia and Africa simply avoiding application of the Declaration.That has been a disappointment and a point of concern. I would say, nonetheless, we have seen the Declaration animate Indigenous Peoples themselves to claim those rights even though the governments don’t recognize them as Indigenous. We have seen groups that were not formally recognized using the Declaration to claim their rights and have some success in having rights recognized. We see this for example in Kenya, where the Endorois peoples have had their land rights recognized through litigation, even though the Kenyan government has been very ambiguous about whether or not the Declaration applies or whether the Endorois people are Indigenous under the terms of the Declaration.

The biggest challenge, I think, is simply the lack of awareness among government officials and among societies more broadly about the concerns and status of Indigenous Peoples and about the rights that have been ascribed to Indigenous Peoples internationally, including through the Declaration. A lack of awareness creates a situation in which the ongoing violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and the remedies that are pointed to in the Declaration are simply ignored and Indigenous Peoples’ concerns are not addressed adequately. What really needs to be done is more than simply pointing to the Declaration in formal legal proceedings or in direct contacts with government leaders and agencies. There needs to be a greater awareness more generally within societies overall, because governments are responsive to the majorities within societies. Without broad social awareness about Indigenous peoples and their rights, we’ll continue to see a lack of action to address Indigenous Peoples’ concerns.

Photo courtesy of Global Coordinating Group Media Team. 

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