By Haider Rizvi
Les Malezer, chairperson of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus, speaks at UN Headquarters in New York.
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 18 (IPS) - Leaders of the world's 370 million indigenous peoples are reiterating their calls for the 192-member U.N. General Assembly to recognise their sovereignty over ancestral lands and resources.
"It is now time for the General Assembly to adopt the declaration by vote, if necessary," Les Malezer, chairman of the U.N.-based Indigenous Peoples Caucus, told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.
The proposed declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples was due to be adopted by the General Assembly last year, but due to fierce objections from certain countries it was set aside for further negotiations.
In addition to the United States, the countries that refused to endorse the declaration included Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Columbia, Russia, Surinam, Guyana and a few African nations led by Namibia.
Those unwilling to sign on to the declaration have expressed strong reservations about parts of the text calling for recognition of the indigenous peoples' right to self-determination and control over their natural resources.
Those in opposition describe the draft declaration as "fundamentally flawed," and thus have refused to accept the indigenous representatives' assertion that their people have the right to self-determination.
Indigenous leaders, who have been struggling for the international recognition of their peoples' rights for more than 20 years, have repeatedly said that they would not accept any watered down version of the text.
"We are distinct people by every definition of the term. We are the people who were colonised after Columbus found his way to the Americas and the European merchants and rulers conspired to dominate and exploit the rest of the world," said Malezer.
Speaking on behalf of the world's first peoples, Malezer, who is an Australian aboriginal, told reporters: "We have our own societies, laws and languages, and a unique relationship with the natural world."
Many among the scientific community seem convinced that without the cooperation of indigenous peoples, there is no way to reverse the loss of biodiversity.
"Nature conservation is at the heart of the cultures and values of traditional societies," according to Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity. "The link between biodiversity and traditional knowledge is evident."
The biodiversity treaty, which has been endorsed by 190 countries, not only recognises the significance of traditional knowledge, but also calls for the need to "respect" and maintain indigenous innovations.
The treaty also calls for "fair and equitable share" for indigenous peoples in the benefits that are derived from natural resources by commercial enterprises.
Yet, threats to indigenous lands and resources, continue to go on in the form of mining, logging, toxic contamination, privatization and development projects, as well as the use of genetically modified seeds.
"There has been some progress in the area of legal recognition of our right," said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. "In practical terms, this recognition has not translated into reality."
In response to a question from IPS, Malezer said there were private commercial interests involved in the political opposition to the declaration of the indigenous peoples' rights.
"It has a lot to do with the existing economic order and multinational interests," he told IPS.
In the recent past, there have been many cases in which the indigenous people challenged the governments that allow private corporations engaged in unlawful, but profitable exploitation of their lands and resources.
Both the United States and Canada have been castigated by various U.N.-based human rights bodies for violating indigenous peoples' rights.
Indigenous leaders said apparently the U.S. has kept silent in the diplomatic discourse on the declaration, but added they had no doubts about that Washington played a key role in orchestrating a negative campaign.
Some two weeks ago, the U.N. released a "non-paper" representing the views of the governments that oppose the declaration. The so-called non-paper calls for amendments in the original text of the declaration, particularly the wording on self-determination and intellectual property rights.
The document does not mention the names of the countries seeking changes in the text, but indigenous leaders told IPS that its the "wording and positions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States are recognisable amongst the jumble of false concerns."
At the news conference, Malezer accused Canada of severely "politicising indigenous peoples", saying it has lost its "credibility" among countries concerned about the principled protection of human rights.
Canada happened to be one of the countries that helped draft the declaration, but altered its position as a result of political change in Ottawa.
Indigenous leaders say both the U.S. and Canada, as well as others in opposition to the declaration, must be held accountable for violations of indigenous peoples' human rights.
"Canada is a leader in opposing the draft declaration," Arthur Manuel, a leader of Canada's first nations, told IPS. "They are doing so because the draft declaration is inconsistent with Canada's getting away with the indigenous land claims."
Like many other indigenous leaders, both Malezer and Arthur hope that despite opposition from a handful of countries, a vast majority of member states in the U.N. General Assembly would vote for the adoption of the declaration this year.
"We call upon those states without indigenous peoples to vote in support," Malezer said, even if the only criterion is to protect and integrity of the Human Rights Council."