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UK attempts to sabotage new charter on the rights of indigenous peoples

20 September 2004

The UK government is actively working this week to sabotage a new United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, by insisting that every reference to ‘rights’ is removed from the draft text. Indigenous peoples attending a UN Working Group1 convened to agree a declaration text, were shocked at the UK moves, which come after ten years of negotiations on the Declaration and just before the deadline for agreement expires this year.

Last week at the start of intergovernmental negotiations currently taking place at the UN in Geneva, indigenous participants were astonished by UK proposals to remove or replace the term ‘rights’ in relation to indigenous peoples, throughout the entire text of the document:

  • Under Article 2 pertaining to freedom and equality in dignity and rights, the UK echoed a proposal by the USA to delete ‘and rights’ and then called for the term ‘rights’ to be deleted throughout the whole document;
  • Under Article 19, regarding the right of indigenous peoples to participate fully in decision making process that affect their lives, the UK asked for removal of the term ‘have the right to’ and reiterated its call for the removal of mention of rights from the entire text, prompting the Guatemalan government delegation to ask what democracy means in nations that do not encourage full participation of all peoples;
  • Even in relation to the right of indigenous people to use and pass on their own language and literature, under Article 14, the UK again proposed that the term ‘right’ should be deleted and replaced with a weaker statement about the need for states to take effective measures;
  • The UK repeatedly proposed that the term ‘indigenous peoples’ should be replaced with ‘indigenous individuals’;
  • Under Article 42 pertaining to the fact that the rights within the document constitute a minimum standard for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples, the UK called for the deletion of the term ‘the rights recognized herein’.

‘The effect of these wrecking amendments tabled by the UK would be to turn the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into a meaningless piece of paper’, said Mark Lattimer, Director of Minority Rights Group International (MRG). ‘Such a declaration would clearly be unacceptable to indigenous peoples and the UK may be banking on this as a means of sabotaging the entire process’, he continued.

Officials have stated that the UK government’s fundamental objection to the concept of collective rights for indigenous peoples lies behind its attempt to remove specific references to ‘rights’ within the text. Doubts remain over the future of the Working Group, and therefore the declaration itself, unless substantial progress is made in the current sessions towards agreement on some 45 articles which comprise the document.

Chairperson of the working group, Mr Luis-Enrique Chavez, seemed equally surprised by the UK position and confirmed that ‘the UK is interested in eliminating rights from this Declaration’. The UK appears to be taking a singularly hard line despite the efforts of numerous other states, including the Nordic states, New Zealand, Switzerland, Mexico and Guatemala, to find consensus with indigenous peoples’ representatives. A small number of other governments including the United States are known to favour termination of the Working Group’s mandate if substantive progress is not made, yet seem determined to create obstacles to such progress.

Indigenous and tribal peoples consider themselves distinct from other sectors of society as pre-invasion and pre-colonial peoples. Worldwide, they often face complex threats to their survival as distinct peoples. Not only are they confronted with dispossession of their ancestral lands and resources, and physical persecution, but they are also faced with such issues as the appropriation of their collective knowledge, arts and skills developed through the ages. The situation of indigenous peoples varies greatly internationally, however, some peoples such as the Bambuti pygmies of Central Africa and numerous Asian indigenous peoples including the Hmong, face extreme danger and persecution from both state and non-state actors alike, and the wider effects of conflict.

Minority Rights Group International calls on the UK government to review its position in regard to the rights of indigenous peoples. It considers this position is inconsistent with the views of the majority of states and indigenous peoples, and contrary to the provisions of existing human rights standards relating to indigenous and collective rights and the spirit of current negotiations. MRG is supporting indigenous participants to attend the drafting sessions and supports their calls for a strong and broad ranging declaration of indigenous rights, that are clearly identified as such.

Notes for editors

  1. 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. It is currently meeting in Geneva from 13-26 September. The draft is being prepared for consideration and adoption by the General Assembly during the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, which finishes this year. The Working Group is being held in Salle 27, Palais des Nations, Geneva.

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].