Indigenous Peoples Press for an OAS American Declaration

Washington, D.C. -- Indigenous leaders and state representatives left the recent 14th round of negotiations on the draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with a sense of both frustration and urgency.  The negotiations within the Organization of American States (OAS) took place April 18-20, 2012 with participants from North America, Mexico, and Central and South America.

Although some agreements were arrived at regarding articles on indigenous spirituality, treaty rights, and rights to lands, territories and resources, cultural heritage and intellectual property, much of the negotiating text remains in brackets – representing lack of agreement.

Armstrong Wiggins, Director of the Washington office of the Indian Law Resource Center, expressed frustration with the lack of progress and stressed the need to conclude negotiations as soon as possible.  “We see widespread violations of indigenous rights in the Americas, making the need for a strong American Declaration more pressing than ever. It would protect human rights as well as the right of self-determination, treaty rights, and the right to lands and resources.” 

In 2005, the United States withdrew from active participation in the negotiations and Canada adopted a similar position in 2008.  Wiggins says the lack of participation runs counter to both States’ endorsement of the U.N. Declaration as well as their claims of supporting the rights of indigenous peoples.

“If the Obama administration is committed to Native peoples, it must put its words into action and re-engage in negotiations. Otherwise it’s turning its back not merely on the negotiations, but on indigenous peoples across this hemisphere,” said Wiggins.

Roger Jones, Senior Advisor of Assembly of First Nations, drew similar conclusions about the importance of Canada’s involvement in the process.

“It is entirely disappointing and contradictory for Canada to state their commitment to protecting and promoting indigenous rights at home and abroad when it refuses to engage in the OAS process of the development of an indigenous human rights instrument,” said Jones.

Indigenous representatives also criticized the lack of support for indigenous peoples’ participation. Due to inadequate resources for travel and lodging, for instance, the Indigenous Peoples Caucus (IPC) was only given a half-day to prepare proposals and negotiating positions prior to the start of negotiations. While indigenous peoples do not vote on the final text, they play an active role in negotiations, contributing proposals and participating in the negotiations through the IPC.

Though a voluntary fund has been established for the purpose of providing resources for indigenous peoples’ participation, States have not contributed sufficiently to facilitate full and effective participation.

What is the American Declaration and how is it different from the U.N. Declaration?

The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is an agreement between the 193 member states of the U.N., and it serves as the basic minimum standard for the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the globe.  Work on the U.N. Declaration began in 1976 and it was completed in 2007.

Work on the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples began in 1989.  The American Declaration is specific to the rights of indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, and it would serve as a tool for recognition of those rights by the 35 member states of the OAS.

The American Declaration offers the possibility of clarifying and building upon the rights recognized in the U.N. Declaration.  For example, proposals include adding articles to address critical issues left out of the U.N. Declaration, such as the rights of indigenous peoples living under internal armed conflict and the rights of those in voluntary isolation and in initial contact.  Draft articles also include respect for indigenous law – something that is not clearly articulated in the U.N. Declaration. Other proposals include more explicit protections for indigenous peoples’ lands, territories and resources, including subsurface resources and carbon resources. It is also hoped that the American Declaration will provide a more thorough treatment of gender and the rights of indigenous women.

Indigenous peoples make up roughly 10 percent of the population of Mexico, Central America, and South America, and in several countries indigenous peoples are the majority. Yet violations of the rights of indigenous peoples remain widespread. Recognition and implementation of the rights of indigenous peoples within the Americas is thus a critical issue for the region.

An American Declaration would provide a stronger legal tool for indigenous peoples within the Americas than the U.N. Declaration currently provides.  The OAS has robust human rights monitoring and complaint mechanisms with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Commission) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Court). The Commission and the Court have the authority to determine whether States within the OAS are in compliance with the American Convention on Human Rights (American Convention). Indigenous peoples, or anyone else in the Americas, can bring a case against their State’s government if their rights are being violated. If an American Declaration existed, indigenous peoples denied justice within their domestic courts could use the American Declaration to guide critical decisions of the Commission or the Court when determining State violations of the American Convention.

According to Chief Darwin Hill of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, the goal of the indigenous delegations at the OAS is “[a] Declaration that is stronger and more effective than the U.N. model. This is important for several reasons, including the fact that within this hemisphere, there are treaty relationships between many indigenous peoples and States, there are many diverse forms of native governments, and the land losses of native peoples require stronger provisions for restitution or redress. There are also on-going serious human rights violations occurring to indigenous peoples in this hemisphere.”

The Navajo Nation has offered to host the next negotiating session of the American Declaration, the dates of which will be set during the meeting of the OAS General Assembly in early June of this year.