Three decades of worldwide effort by Indigenous Peoples resulted in an historic victory in the United Nations General Assembly on September 13, 2007, when that body adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by an overwhelming majority. 143 Yes. 4 No, 11 Abstain. With the adoption of the Declaration, Indigenous Peoples take their rightful place among the peoples of the world acknowledged as having the right of self determination. The Declaration affirms the collective human rights of Indigenous Peoples across a broad range of areas including self-determination, spirituality, land rights, and rights to intellectual property; thereby providing some balance to an international rights framework based largely on individual rights. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and its attorneys, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), have been actively involved in the process of elaborating the Declaration since 1999.

The approval by the General Assembly comes somewhat over a year after the approval of the Declaration by the Human Rights Council in its first session in June of 2006. It was initially anticipated that the Declaration would be voted on in the General Assembly in the fall of 2006, but a number of African countries and others called for further consultations. Eventually the African Group proposed more than thirty amendments which would have seriously weakened the Declaration in ways unacceptable to Indigenous Peoples. Unacceptable amendments were also proposed by the Canadian group.

An opinion by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights indicated that the amendments proposed by the African Group were not warranted under international law. Subsequently, Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru negotiated with the African Group to reduce the amendments to nine, and eliminated the deal-breaking amendments as far as most Indigenous Peoples are concerned. With the African Group aligning with those already in support, passage of the Declaration by an overwhelming majority was assured. Unfortunately, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which hold themselves out as staunch defenders of human rights, were the only four countries voting against the Declaration.

Being the product of a political process, the Declaration is not a perfect document and does not include everything for which Indigenous Peoples had hoped and worked for thirty years. Nevertheless, the Declaration is an important and historic step forward in recognizing their rights.

United Nations Press Release

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