After more than 20 years in the pipeline, the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was finally approved on June 29. Indian representative Ajai Malhotra explained India’s vote: "India had consistently favored the rights of indigenous peoples, and had worked for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The text before the Council was the result of 11 years of hard work. The text did not contain a definition of (the term) ‘indigenous.’"
The entire population of India was considered indigenous, Malhotra added. "With regards to the right to self-determination, this was understood to apply only to peoples under foreign domination, and not to a nation of indigenous persons. With this understanding, India was ready to support the proposal for the adoption of the draft declaration, and would vote in its favor."
With 30 states voting in favor and only Canada and Russia against it, the declaration marks a milestone in the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples around the world and brings to an end indigenous peoples’ long struggle for self-determination.
Under the declaration indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.
It also says that indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity.
The declaration recognizes and protects the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination and, by virtue of that right, they may freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
The declaration also states that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the state.
Those who voted for the resolution’s adoption were Azerbaijan, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Uruguay and Zambia.
Those who voted against were Canada and the Russian Federation.
Twelve nations, namely the Philippines, Algeria, Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Ghana, Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Ukraine, abstained from voting.
The nations of Djibouti, Gabon and Mali were absent when the resolution was voted upon.
Quoting some of the explanations of their vote for the declaration, Guatemalan Carla Rodriguez Mancia said, "enough time had gone during the last 20 years in drafting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration would be a historical achievement in the efforts of the international community towards the rights of the indigenous peoples."
"Adopting the draft declaration would help the indigenous peoples. Guatemala called on all states to adopt the draft by consensus," Mancia said.
Mexican Xochiti Galvez said they had finally closed the circle. They were at a historic point in time where the UN member-states acknowledged the fundamental rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.
"Mexico was prepared to support the adoption of the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," Galvez said. "Where there was a collective political will, they could achieve a great deal. That had been seen in the Working Group, where the spirit of cooperation and dialogue had prevailed."
Mexico, he said, asked those countries that still had misgivings to vote favorably on this resolution: "It was important for the Human Rights Council to give a clear signal to indigenous peoples throughout the world that it was working to promote and protect their human rights."
The United Kingdom’s Nicholas Thorne said his country welcomed the declaration as "an important tool to enhance the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples."
The UK, Thorne said, felt its concerns had been addressed in negotiations, as reflected in the declaration, and it fully supported the provisions of the declaration that recognized the rights of indigenous peoples under international law, on an equal footing with all.
The UK, however, did not accept the concept of indigenous peoples’ collective rights in international law, Thorne said.
According to him, the UK understood the right of self-determination as set out in the declaration as one which was to be exercised within the territory of a state and "which was not designed to impact in any way on the territorial integrity of states."
The UK position on the matter is that the declaration was not legally binding and that the citizens of the UK and its territories overseas do not fall within the scope of the declaration, he added.
Paul Meyer of Canada explained his regret over their negative vote, though he acknowledged the important role that Canada played in the process of the drafting of the declaration.
Meyer said the draft declaration did not receive the necessary support, even though Canada, some other countries and a few indigenous peoples’ representatives noted in their statements difficulties with a process where all parties had not discussed proposed language on several key issues.
He added that Canada had worked for a declaration that would promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of every indigenous person without discrimination and recognized the collective rights of indigenous peoples around the world.
Canada had a long and proud tradition of not only supporting but also actively advocating aboriginal and treaty rights at home and was fully committed to working internationally on indigenous issues, he added.