On September 13, 2007, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDec) was adopted by 144 countries, with 11 abstentions and four countries voting against it. These four countries were Canada, the USA, New Zealand, and Australia. By the close of 2010, all four dissenting countries reversed their positions and endorsed the Declaration.
What is the UN Declaration? The Declaration is an international human rights instrument adopted by the UN General Assembly following over two decades of negotiations. It sets the minimum standard for treatment of Indigenous people and states that the rights contained within it “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous people of the world.” The Declaration contains 24 preambular paragraphs and 46 articles. While it does not have any legal teeth, it is a significant milestone in the march to protection and promotion of Indigenous rights.
Why were Indigenous rights not included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)? The UDHR was drafted in 1946 after the horrific atrocities of WWII but Indigenous people were not invited to participate.
What is the purpose of the Declaration? To provide a mechanism to protect the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education, protection of traditional lands, as well as other issues. The Declaration includes many provisions that relate to the right of Indigenous peoples to participate in decision-making.
What are the Declaration’s principles in regard to rights to lands, territories and resources? Article 26 states “Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources they possess by reason of traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.” This right includes the relationship to coastal seas and waters, protecting them for future generations.
Is Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) covered in the Declaration? Yes, FPIC is dealt with extensively. Article 18 is of particular interest: “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”
What were the main objections of the federal government to the Declaration? From the website of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada:
Why did Canada vote against adoption of the UNDec? The concern for Canada centred not on the overarching principles of the UNDec, but rather on its actual text.
In a statement to explain its vote at the UN General Assembly, Canada expressed its disappointment in voting against a document that it had been an active participant in developing for over 20 years. During that time Canada helped galvanize international efforts towards the development of a declaration that would promote and protect the rights and freedoms of every Indigenous person, as well as recognize their collective rights around the world.
What are the areas of greatest concern? The areas of greatest concern for the Government of Canada are those provisions dealing with lands, territories and resources; free, prior and informed consent when used as a veto; self-government without recognition of the importance of negotiations; intellectual property; military issues; and the need to achieve an appropriate balance between the rights and obligations of Indigenous peoples, member States and third parties.
For an overview of the timeline on Canada’s road to endorsement of the Declaration, please see our article “Free, Prior, and Informed Consent and the duty to consult".
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