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On Defining and Securing the Rights of Indigenous Populations
Commission on Human Rights

Matt Schneider, Chair


"…those people having an historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations, their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions, and legal systems."
~The UN’s Working Definition of Indigenous Populations


The right of indigenous populations has long been a contested issue in the world. From the Jews and the Native Americans to the Kurds and the East Timorese, struggles between indigenous populations and the groups that smother them are virtually ubiquitous; though examples such as above are, thankfully, few and far between. The banal examples of violations, as well as the headliners,need to be dealt with by the United Nations. In 1982, the UN created the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. The WGIP’s goal was (and is) to secure the rights of indigenous populations. Reactive in nature, the WGIP was a response to several past episodes of gross infringements on the rights of indigenous peoples (some of these include the United States’ long history with American Indians, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the India/Pakistan conflict, among others). Made up of five experts (one from each geo-political realm), the Group meets annually and has a twofold mandate: review national developments in the realm of indigenous populations, and develop international standards relating to the promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples. In 1995, the next 10 years were declared the international Decade For Indigenous Populations. Running, then, through 2004, the decade’s purpose is defined by the General Assembly as:

“…to strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health. In adopting the programme of activities for the Decade, the General Assembly recognized the value and the diversity of the cultures and the forms of social organization of the world’s indigenous people. It also recognized that the protection of the rights of indigenous people would contribute to the socio-economic, cultural and environmental advancement of the countries in which they lived. The International Decade is a time for the United Nations, governments, non-governmental organizations and other groups to focus on and commit themselves to the promotion and protection of the human rights of indigenous people. It is also a time to emphasize the role of indigenous people as decision-makers and as beneficiaries of national, regional and international development activities. The theme of the Decade is ‘Indigenous people: partnership in action’ (www.unhchr.ch).”

 

During the decade, the UN aims at: the establishment of a permanent forum for indigenous people—as called for by the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights—and the adoption of the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. The draft declaration is now under consideration by a working group established by the Human Rights Commission. In addition to restating the basic protections of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the draft declaration would protect specific rights as applicable to indigenous people, such as: freedom of religious practices, customs, and ceremonies; freedom of access to their property and sacred places; land rights and environmental rights; language and oral traditions; self determination and participation in decision-making; and access to native language education. It would also prohibit relocation and imposed assimilation or integration; and it states that treaties between indigenous people and Governments should be honored, and that indigenous people are entitled to restitution for losses imposed on them. The year 2000 brought forth a resolution adopted by the Economic and Social Council that established the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. That Forum met for the first time from May 6-May 17, 2002, at UN headquarters in New York City.


As this is a controversial issue (especially between different cultures, but also within similar cultures; i.e.-whose land is it?), most states have supporters of both sides. States’ official views vary and sometimes depend on which indigenous population is concerned (especially for the United States). Protecting the rights of indigenous populations is a relatively new goal for the UN, so action is held up on one thing—the definition of what, exactly, the rights of an indigenous population are. It is the responsibility of the Commission on Human Rights to provide that definition to the General Assembly and the Security Council so as to get action taken in respect to said rights. Since the UNCHR has no mechanisms for enforcement, none should be needed in a prospective resolution (a simple definition with supporting facts should suffice).

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