Image: Mural at the Centro Utopia, cultural centre of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH)

On 17 September 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It may not have drawn much public interest but for the 400 million or so indigenous peoples in the world it was a long-awaited and potential life-changing achievement, says Dr Julian Burger.

Twenty years in the making, the Declaration acknowledged the rights of indigenous peoples to determine their futures, decide on the kind of development they wanted and live without interference on their ancestral lands. It accepted that indigenous peoples had rights over their lands and resources and that outsiders including especially extractive industries should seek to obtain the consent of the community if they wanted to undertake activities on indigenous peoples’ lands.

Unlike any other UN process of negotiation, the victims and beneficiaries were fully involved in the details of the text and principles being drafted. The discussions were sometimes rancorous and mostly unusually frank for an environment in which disagreement and downright anger are coded so as to be almost unnoticeable to the outsider. Here governments had to get used to indigenous leaders, community members, youth, elders and activists coming in their hundreds to describe the injustices faced in their communities and proposing the measures that states needed to make to address them.

Some countries – the Nordics in particular and many Latin American states – were sympathetic and generally supportive and others less so. In due course, the persistence and persuasiveness of the indigenous delegates and a retreat offered by the government of Mexico in the beautiful town of Patzcuaro with Mariachi and tequila to engender conviviality and sometimes more, provided the tipping point needed to move forward the declaration politically. When the time came to vote at the General Assembly only Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US opposed. It would take a change of regime in the US from George W Bush to Barrack Obama and similar political shifts in the other countries for them to finally sign on to the Declaration.

So what difference has this new human rights document made? Certainly indigenous peoples are not now living in a land of milk and honey. Dozens of conflicts exist as indigenous peoples resist mining, dams and other developments on their lands. In Latin America, the assassination of human rights and environmental defenders – many of them indigenous activists – has reached a record high. Despite being the most affected by climate change, whether Pacific islanders, Inuit, Saami, Chukchi and others living in the Far North or pastoralists dependent on grazing lands for their animals indigenous peoples have little to no say in policymaking affecting them. Poverty, unemployment, and limited access to health, education and other services remains a characteristic among most communities. Furthermore, the legacy of neglect and mistreatment, such as the terrible history of indigenous children in Australia and Canada being forcibly removed from their families and placed in distant schools where they faced discrimination, denigration and sexual abuse has traumatised an entire generation.

Chort’i women at meeting to discuss impacts of hydro-electric project on their communities

Despite these realities, there are welcome positive changes. Internationally, indigenous peoples have acquired an unprecedented institutional presence in UN bodies where they dominate the membership and can determine the agenda and outcome of the meetings. In New York a 16 member expert body provides advice to the Economic and Social Council, the high level body dealing with development in the UN system. In Geneva indigenous led institutions have direct access to the Human Rights Council, the highest level body dealing with human rights. Twenty years ago a facility to advise and intervene directly at such a high level in the UN system might have seemed as unlikely as tele-transportation. And there have been significant steps forward nationally, whether it is in the form of constitutional changes in countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador recognising a wide range of indigenous peoples’ rights, or through the recognition and demarcation of indigenous peoples’ rights over land in dozens of countries.

At this 10 year landmark, the jury is still out on whether the situation of indigenous peoples has improved sufficiently to talk of a real progress. Hence the initiative taken by the Human Rights Consortium and the School of Advanced Study along together with other partner academic bodies to reflect upon 10 years of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007 to 2017 at a conference on 20 October. More than 60 expert participants will reflect on the successes and continuing challenges of the Declaration, and perhaps bring us nearer to understanding the impact of this unique and important human rights triumph.

About the author
Dr Julian Burger is a fellow of the Human Rights Consortium and teaches at the School of Advanced Study and the University of Essex. He headed the indigenous peoples programme at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1990 to 2010, and was responsible for organising the negotiations on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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