Statement on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to the EMRIP 2012

By | 12 July, 2012


Statement by James Anaya,

Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples

5th session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Human Rights Council

12 July 2012
Geneva, Switzerland

Mr. Chairperson,

Distinguished members of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,

Delegates of Member States,

Representatives of indigenous peoples and organizations,

Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you for this opportunity to once again address the members of the Expert Mechanism and all those attending this session. I am pleased to be able to participate in this inter-active dialogue on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Almost five years ago, we passed from the time when the Declaration was still a proposal to a time when it represents a global standard accepted by the nations of the world in consonance with the aspirations of indigenous peoples. This historic document is a testament to the sacrifices and tireless efforts of indigenous peoples who have confronted oppressive forces with the tools of diplomacy and with appeals to the better side of the human consciousness.

The text of the Declaration evolved from sentiments articulated by indigenous peoples that prompted discussion on a global scale about their rights and place in the world. Government actors were moved to embrace a vision of a world in which indigenous peoples and their diverse cultures survive as parts of the global human mosaic. The words of the Declaration sharpen and project this vision, proclaiming that “Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to other peoples and individuals,” and that “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination.”

Such words mark the transition from an era in which dominant thinking justified infringing or, at best, ignoring indigenous peoples rights, to an era in which indigenous peoples’ rights are recognized within the global program to advance human rights and peaceful relations among the peoples of the world.

The Declaration’s adoption nearly five years ago was thus cause for celebration, and indeed that cause for celebration continues as we approach the Declaration’s fifth anniversary. But as we celebrate the Declaration, we cannot help but see the wide gap that persists between what is proclaimed in this instrument and what is mostly experienced by indigenous peoples in their everyday lives.

Nearly five years after its adoption, the Declaration remains much more of a reminder of the rights that indigenous peoples fail to realize than a reflection of their realities. Those realities are of continual breaches of the rights affirmed in the Declaration, resulting not just from isolated incidents but more so from patterns of government and societal behavior rooted in the oppressive past. It is evident that States and the international community, in cooperation with indigenous peoples, must do much more to move the standards articulated in the Declaration from aspiration to reality.

To catalyze steps in this direction, UN Member States should individually and collectively renew a commitment to the standards of the Declaration, recognizing its solemn character and grounding in the human rights imperatives of the United Nations Charter and various human rights treaties. There should be no room for equivocating about the need to adhere to the Declaration upon the basis of legalistic assertions of its non-binding character. Good faith requires decided efforts to adhere to the plain meaning of the Declaration’s mandatory terms.

As part of this renewed commitment, efforts should be redoubled to raise awareness of the Declaration among government and United Nations actors at all levels, including those actors whose functions and powers touch upon the lives of indigenous peoples.

In concert with building such awareness, States should develop coordinated and comprehensive strategies for the reform of laws and programs as needed to fully implement the Declaration. As I have pointed out in my reports to the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, all too often domestic laws and administrative practices conflict with the standards of the Declaration. For their part, all United Nations and other international agencies should ensure compliance with the Declaration in the design and delivery of their programs. In my work as Special Rapporteur, I have regrettably witnessed too many instances in which this is not the case and in which instead ignorance or indifference prevails among United Nations actors about the Declaration.

Additionally, all international standard-setting processes that affect indigenous peoples, such as those related to climate change, biological diversity, and intellectual property, should conform fully to the standards of the Declaration, both in relation to the participation of indigenous peoples in these processes and their substantive outcomes. I join others in expressing concern that this has often not been the case in recent years.

Finally, there is a great need for educating the public about the Declaration and the issues it seeks to address. Until the non-indigenous sectors of the societies within which indigenous peoples live come to share in awareness about the Declaration and its goals, it will remain difficult for those goals to be achieved amid competing political, economic and social forces.

So, as the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples approaches its fifth anniversary, let us celebrate this monumental instrument. But let us not allow this celebration to obscure the challenges ahead for the Declaration’s implementation. Let us instead take this occasion to recall why the Declaration exists in the first place – that is to improve the human rights conditions of the world’s indigenous peoples – and to renew commitment to that end.

I thank you all for your kind attention.