Lagging on indigenous rights

TheStar.com – Opinion – Lagging on indigenous rights
September 10, 2009.   Warren Allmand, Former minister of Indian and Northern Affairs

Indigenous peoples around the world, who now number 370 million, have been routinely marginalized, impoverished and victimized. At the United Nations, efforts have been made to affirm and protect the rights that are indispensable to their survival and well-being.

Two years ago, on Sept. 13, 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by an overwhelming majority of 144 to 4. The declaration recognizes the distinct identities and cultures of indigenous peoples, their rights to lands, territories and natural resources that are critical to their way of life, and their need for protection against genocide and discrimination.

The idea for the declaration originated in 1982 and its development for more than 20 years has made it one of the most intensely debated and carefully scrutinized instruments in UN history.

The declaration provides an inspiring vision of a new relationship between states and indigenous peoples, one based on cooperation and respect for the rights of all. The declaration consistently and repeatedly refers to collaboration, cooperation or partnership and contains some of the most comprehensive balancing provisions that exist in any international human rights instrument.

Although UN declarations are generally not legally binding, they intensify public awareness of the issues and exert moral pressure on nations to implement the human rights principles that have been affirmed.

Four countries voted against the declaration: Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada.

The arguments put forward by the Harper government for opposing adoption of the declaration do not stand up to legal scrutiny. This text is standard-setting and aspirational, and does not create a legally binding treaty. Its provisions have been examined, and supported, by federal government lawyers in the departments of Justice and Foreign Affairs, as well as by previous governments.

A May 2008 open letter endorsed by more than 100 experts in the fields of indigenous rights and constitutional and international law calls on the government of Canada “to cease publicizing its misleading claims, and together with indigenous peoples, actively implement this new human rights instrument.” Former UN high commissioner for human rights and former Canadian Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour has expressed “profound disappointment” over Canada’s stance.

In Australia in October 2007, then prime minister John Howard pledged to hold a referendum on changing their constitution to recognize indigenous Australians if re-elected. Subsequently, the new government under Kevin Rudd apologized to indigenous communities who had suffered at the hands of European settlers for decades. His government formally endorsed the declaration in April.

The government of New Zealand, after heavy criticism from the Maori Party, Greens and the Human Rights Commission, is currently reconsidering its stance. According to a spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, the Obama administration is also reviewing its position.

In Canada, the fight to reverse the government position continues. Members of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories passed a motion in February 2008 calling on their government to accept the declaration as an aspirational document. In April 2008, the House of Commons adopted a motion to endorse the declaration and fully implement the standards therein. The minority government did not support the motion and has subsequently ignored it.

Sept. 13, 2009, will be the second anniversary of the declaration. It is high time for Canada to once again become a leader in human rights, and not a laggard that for this and other reasons is fast losing respect in the international community.

Warren Allmand is president of the World Federalist Movement-Canada.

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