HLRN Welcomes UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

Finally, the world has a human rights standard for indigenous peoples, recognizing their rights to their lands and to their self-determined conditions of housing and habitat as their land-based cultures dictate. The Housing and Land Rights Network of Habitat International Coalition (HIC-HLRN) enthusiastically welcomes the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September.

Although this declaration of principles, affirmed by most States Members of the UN, is not yet a binding instrument, HLRN urges its wide application. Therefore, HLRN looks forward also to a binding instrument that provides effective guarantees of the rights and duties contained in the present Declaration.

HLRN coordinator Joseph Schechla, speaking from Cairo, noted that “We are encouraged by the Declaration’s wide support, but remain concerned also that, after 20 years of negotiations, the voting record is disappointing.” Noting that some of the countries notorious for their unremedied and continuing dispossession of indigenous peoples voted against the Declaration, he observed that “Those delegations have explained that opposition to the Declaration with very flimsy reasoning.”

On Thursday, 143 Member States voted in favour, 11 abstained and four—Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States—voted against the text.[1]

Notably, 34 concerned countries avoided the vote by their absence.[2] Many of those nonvoting countries are comprised, at least in part, of self-identified indigenous peoples. At least two absentee delegations are from countries currently occupying and dispossessing indigenous peoples recognized as entitled to independent self-determination.

Mr. Schechla noted that “the Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] represents a common ground between indigenous peoples’ claims, echoing for half a millennium, and the human rights principles upon which the UN was founded.” He added that, “It serves as a floor, a minimum, not a ceiling, for the relations between States and indigenous peoples and nations.”

For HLRN and its worldwide HIC Member organizations, it is particularly significant that the new Declaration variously recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands within its preamble, as well as enshrines those rights in eight operative articles. These recognize past violations of indigenous peoples’ land rights, as well as needed measures for States henceforth to respect, protect and fulfill indigenous peoples’ rights to land, housing and environment. The Declaration (article 27) provides that States commit to “giving due recognition to indigenous peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems.” It also includes an explicit reference to the will of the UN and its States to protect indigenous peoples against forced assimilation, forced removal and population transfer. All of these measures already have been prohibited under the legal regimes of human rights, humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict and/or international criminal law.

The Declaration’s preamble and articles 3–4 embody a restatement of all peoples’ right to self-determination, but, by amendment of an earlier draft, the General Assembly text omitted the recognition of indigenous peoples’ “right to determine their relationships with States in the spirit of coexistence, mutual benefit and full respect.”

In light of all the human rights norms that the Declaration contains, as well as those values yet to be realized for indigenous peoples, the vote on 13 September 2007 still counts as a great civilizing step forward. Even with some notable shortcomings, the Declaration stands as an indicator of a turning tide of history, particularly despite the rejection and absences during the voting of States that actually continue to occupy indigenous peoples. This new norm should provide a solid basis for binding standards that will serve to repair relations among peoples, and between people and the land, to build for all the earth a human rights habitat.

You can Link to the Declaration on the HLRN website:




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[1] The States abstaining were: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine.

[2] Those State delegations were from Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gambia, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Israel, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Montenegro, Morocco, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Tajikistan, Togo, Tonga, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu.