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Indigenous Working Group ends in frustration amid political manoeuvring

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The United Nations Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples held in Geneva in September has failed once again to reach consensus on any of the articles under consideration. Following initial optimism that the forum would achieve the adoption of a number of less controversial articles, the tactics of some states have been seen as political manoeuvring with the intention of avoiding such consensus. Many indigenous participants were frustrated by ‘chaotic’ negotiations and stalemate, leaving the future of the Working Group, and hence the prospects of a Declaration itself, in doubt.

The USA has expressed the opinion that the Working Group’s mandate should be terminated, unless it makes ‘substantive’ progress by the end of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People in 2004. However, many participants have seen the position of the USA and other states as uncooperative and uncompromising. In contrast a number of indigenous participants, as well as some states have shown greater flexibility, in the belief that this is now necessary if any Declaration is to be achieved at all. Many indigenous peoples used to take – and continue to take – the firm position not to accept any attempt to change the text of the Draft Declaration, which had been prepared in consultation with indigenous peoples themselves, states and independent experts. Nordic countries have endeavoured to play a leading role in attempting to ‘bridge the gap’ between indigenous peoples and states.

To the indignation of indigenous participants, Australia together with Canada presented a joint proposal suggesting a complete reformulation of the original text of vital articles concerning lands, territories and other national resources. Together with several states, the indigenous peoples considered such a submission as coming too late, allowing little time for study or consultation. Many participants, including state delegations expressed support for working with the original text as a basis, whereas a few countries, notably the USA strongly supported the new proposal and suggested that they could not accept the original formulation. Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK also considered that reference to the ‘right to development’ should be withdrawn since they suggested that a lack of clear international understanding existed on this issue. This is despite the fact that since the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development in 1986, this right has been reaffirmed in the final Declarations of all UN World Conferences.

Despite rigorous efforts to reach consensus on at least some articles, including informal consultations involving states and indigenous representatives, no agreement had been achieved by the last formal meeting on Friday 26 September. The use of the term ‘peoples’ remains contentious, as does the collective nature of the rights within some articles. Due to lack of time, no further consultation was possible, however the Chair expressed optimism and declared satisfaction with the progress achieved. It is hoped that a further session will be held before the next Commission on Human Rights in 2004, which will consider the report of the ninth session of the Working Group and decide whether to extend its mandate.

The Working Group was established in 1995 with the purpose of elaborating on the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, which had been originally prepared at the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. The draft is being prepared for consideration and adoption by the General Assembly during the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, however it has been beset by problems and failure to find agreement. Nine years from its outset, the Working Group on the Draft Declaration has provisionally approved only two of the forty five articles of the Draft Declaration.

Minority Rights Group International calls for renewed efforts by states and indigenous peoples to build constructively on the substantial work carried out over the nine sessions of the Working Group on the Draft Declaration, as a fitting conclusion to the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People.

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