Indigenous Peoples, Governments Continue to Lack Consensus As Draft Declaration Deadline Approaches


With only months left in the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, the movement to adopt an international instrument to secure indigenous peoples human rights received a rare opportunity this fall. Multiple extra sessions were scheduled by the United Nations so that indigenous peoples and governments could negotiate and adopt a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. At the first of those meetings in September, however, some governments seemed determined to doom the Declaration, the mandate of which is set to expire along with the Decade on December 31.

Those who attended the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Working Group on the Draft Declaration (WGDD) for two weeks in September faced serious challenges. Only two of the Declaration’s 45 articles had been adopted since the Declaration was drafted 10 years ago. Creative collaboration among those who attended the opening meeting of the session led to several innovative initiatives aimed at ending the deadlock and building consensus. But at the conclusion of the negotiations, WGDD Chairman Luis-Enrique Chavez refused to formally adopt any of those articles on which widespread consensus had been achieved. At the conclusion of the session, not a single article had moved into the adopted column.

Discussions focused on articles addressing the self-determination of indigenous peoples and their rights to land and natural resources. The most intense debate resulted from informal sessions held between states and indigenous peoples to discuss specific articles. During these lunch-time and evening meetings, the groups created language that participants agreed balanced fundamental freedoms and states’ concerns.

However, throughout the two weeks of dialogue, a small vocal minority raised objections at every possible point. The United States and the United Kingdom continuously challenged the essence of the document, even requesting that it be titled the Declaration on the Needs of Indigenous Peoples.

In response, Hector Huertas of the Asociacion Napguana Kuna Nation declared, “We don’t want assistance. We want rights.”

While indigenous delegates offered language acknowledging the advancement of the human rights of indigenous peoples in international law, governments often reflected positions taken by 19th century philosophers and theologians who placed indigenous peoples as sub-human and without basic rights.

Andrea Carmen of the International Indian Treaty Council spoke about the necessity to maintain the language of the articles as they were adopted by the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in 1993 and the U.N. Sub-Commission in 1994. Changing the original language, she said, could cause a significant shift in the original intent of the indigenous peoples and international legal experts who drafted the declaration and would weaken the document.

“We have participated in a spirit of good faith for 10 years,” said Alberto Saldamando of the International Indian Treaty Council. “After seeing some of the proposals put forward, we have grave and profound concerns because they would undermine self-determination if incorporated in the final text”

Chavez called on indigenous peoples and states to use the weeks between the close of September’s meeting and the opening of the final WGDD session, scheduled for early December, to continue discussions that have shown hope for consensus.

Joshua Cooper is the executive director of the Hawaii Institute for Human Rights. He is also a lecturer at the University of Hawaii and the International Training Center for Teaching Peace and Human Rights in Geneva.


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