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Optimism and outrage mark end of Indigenous decade

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Progress towards a draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been hampered by disagreement and uncertainty following an additional session of the drafting Working Group, which concluded on 3 December. The Chair of the Working Group expressed optimism and indicated a growing consensus between states and indigenous delegations. However such optimism was markedly absent amongst many indigenous peoples who expressed outrage at the process. Some attended the opening session on 29 November to announce a hunger strike in protest against attempts by some states to ‘weaken and undermine’ the Draft Declaration and at the prospect of an unrealistic picture of general consensus being presented to the Commission on Human Rights. It had been hoped that a completed draft Declaration would mark a successful conclusion to the first International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples at the end of December.

The additional week long session ended with no further adoption of articles from the draft text, which many indigenous representatives desired as a tangible sign of progress, but which the Chair, Peruvian Mr Luis Chavez, seemed reluctant to consider. Indigenous participants are concerned that references to developing consensus around an amended text may be aimed at bringing the consultative process to a premature end and taking the draft declaration forward more rapidly. Such a move would undoubtedly result in widespread protest amongst indigenous peoples who remain resolutely committed to achieving a strong and comprehensive declaration with widespread indigenous support. The Indigenous Peoples Caucus, representing indigenous communities from all continents, expressed the opinion that many of 45 articles under consideration could be provisionally adopted, and that this adoption process was the best way of facilitating progress toward a final, acceptable draft.

Major disagreements between states and indigenous peoples continue to plague the drafting process and include controversial issues of self-determination, land and territory rights, and ‘cross-cutting’ issues including recognition of collective, indigenous rights. Informal consultations on these issues failed to reach consensus, however, significantly, the UK appeared to soften its earlier uncompromising stance rejecting collective indigenous rights. The UK representative proposed the inclusion of a preambular paragraph elaborating on the issue of collective rights, suggesting that this would allow them to accept many existing articles without significant alteration. The suggested paragraph states that: ‘indigenous peoples are possessed collectively with other rights which are indispensable for their existence…’, which MRG welcomed as a significant acknowledgement by the UK of collective indigenous rights, but which came too late to influence events.

In a statement, the hunger-strikers, largely from and supported by indigenous organizations in the Americas, stated ‘we will not allow our rights to be negotiated, compromised or diminished in this UN process, which was initiated more than 20 years ago by Indigenous Peoples’. The hunger strikers gained widespread support amongst other indigenous peoples who acknowledged their frustration and anger while continuing the consultative process. The hunger strike was brought to an early conclusion on 2 December following a meeting with a representative of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Vice President of the UN Commission on Human Rights. According to representatives of the hunger strikers, they were able to gain assurances that ‘no document different from the Sub-Commission text will be adopted by the Human Rights Commission if it is not produced by a consensus of the Indigenous Peoples’.

The session concluded with little cause for celebration among indigenous representatives other than the prospect of a continuation of the mandate of the Working Group in 2005, which Mr Chavez proposed to recommend to the Commission on Human Rights. Some states, such as Australia, have called for the process not to be extended without significant progress on fundamental issues such as self-determination. A final report of the proceedings and outcomes will be sent to the Commission for consideration. On 20 December 2004, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People to commence on 1 January 2005, a move welcomed by indigenous peoples and MRG.

The Intersessional Working Group on the Draft Declaration on Indigenous Peoples was established in 1995 with the purpose of finalizing the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The draft is being prepared for consideration and adoption by the General Assembly.

Notes for editors

For further information or to arrange interviews, please contact the MRG Press Office on press@minorityrights.org.

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