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At the UN, Declaration of Rights for Indigenous First Nations Passes Despite First World Opposition

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, September 13 -- Overriding the negative votes of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, the UN General Assembly today adopted the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Afterwards a series of speakers representing, among others, Inuit, Taino, Saami and other First Nations, spoke of the twenty five years of work leading to the vote -- or an Inuit speaker put it, of the work since the time of Columbus, or since 1492, as said by a Taino.

            Western Canadian leader Edward John said that Canada should step down from the UN Human Rights Council, now that it had cast this negative vote. Canadian Ambassador John McNee, speaking in the Assembly chamber but not outside it with reporters, said flatly that the Declaration will have no effect in Canada "and is not customary international law." Inner City Press asked longtime Declaration proponent Willie Littlechild about Amb. McNee's comment. "That's up to courts to decide," he said, not the Canadian Ambassador.

            The momentum turned in favor of the Declaration when the African group dropped its objections, after nine amendment were made, including a tipping-of-the-hat to territorial integrity and political unity not being undermined by the Declaration. Namibia's Permanent Representative said that, in his view, indigenous peoples in African are not necessarily "distinct groups," and that there should be an ability for governments to deploy their militaries, even on indigenous lands, in the public interest.

     The representative of Benin said that his country had never been opposed to the Declaration, but had shown "solidarity" with the rest of the African Group until the compromise was brokered. The main negotiators, Inner City Press is informed, were Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. Ban Ki-moon had little involvement, the proponents have said, but his spokesperson did read out a statement of support, after Inner City Press asked, and after the vote's results were announced.

Elder, India / Tibet

            Most UN correspondents stayed in the main briefing room to hear about the upcoming General Debate. At the stakeout in front of the General Assembly, there were only two question-asking reporters, and then only one: Inner City Press. The speakers went on for more than an hour, including an extensive speech by a representative from Easter Island. UN Television filmed it, but did not put it online. Several people who wanted to cover it, weren't allowed to. But where then was the diplomatic press?

            Earlier in the week, a report was released comparing nations' votes in the Human Rights Council on resolutions regarding North Korean, Belarus, Uzbekistan and others. In this scoring, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States all came out at the top of the human rights rankings. But with their negative votes on a major human rights instruments, those tables will have to be re-tabulated. Sadly, rogue regimes will be able to point to these votes to get themselves off the hook. And who's to blame for that?

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Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund, while UNDP won't answer.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540