Better Late Than Never: U.S. to endorse U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

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This guest post comes from Leina Ley, a third year law student at Berkeley Law and a recent legal intern in ERI’s Washington DC office. Leina is Native Hawaiian and is interested in indigenous rights, civil rights, and environmental justice.

 


 

Last week at the second annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama announced that the United States would join the rest of the world and endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The announcement by President Obama marks a significant milestone in U.S. relations with Native peoples as well as in the development of international human rights law. While the Declaration is a non-binding legal document, it outlines key rights to guide states in their relationships with indigenous groups, such as the right to speak indigenous languages, to keep native children within the community and to access and use traditional lands. The Declaration also explicitly recognizes the history of dispossession, marginalization and colonization shared by indigenous peoples the world over who came together to secure the passage of the Declaration.

The work of EarthRights International directly addresses one of the ongoing challenges facing indigenous communities: the destructive effects of extractive industries such as mining and oil exploration on the environment, health and communal integrity of indigenous groups. While multiple decisions from the U.N. treaty-bodies have documented the human rights violations suffered by indigenous peoples in the context of extractive operations over the years, ERI is able to hold corporations directly accountable for these violations through litigation and public advocacy. As states move towards realization of the standards articulated in the Declaration, they should lend increased oversight to the operation of these industries, preventing harms before they happen. Implementation of the right to free, prior and informed consent could alone decrease many of the most egregious violations of human rights for communities that live in the geographic vicinity of oil and mining concessions and depend on that environment for their livelihoods and continued cultural survival.

In his address to tribal leaders last week, Obama focused his remarks on jobs, health care, education and the problems of law enforcement on Indian reservations. The announcement by President Obama was accompanied by a more specific list of initiatives to address indigenous issues within U.S. borders. While important to the ultimate realization of rights granted to tribes and tribal members by the U.S. Constitution, the bureaucracy of such government programs may sometimes serve to obfuscate the more fundamental problems that continue to plague Native Nations.

The General Assembly adopted the Declaration on September 13, 2007 by an overwhleming vote of 143 to 4. Of the four countries that voted no – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States – the United States is the last to move to endorse the document.

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