Historical Use of Legal Term “Indigenous Peoples” in UN Declaration

Last summer’s United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), for the first time in UN history, adopted the unqualified term “indigenous peoples” in its official political declaration.

That declaration is in stark contrast to a 2001 UN World Conference against racism, held in Durban, South Africa, where the term peoples was qualified as still being “under negotiations.” The term “indigenous peoples” was unconditionally adopted for the first time in an official UN document.

“We think the UN has made a vital step towards respecting indigenous peoples equal to other peoples of the world,” stated Vicky Tauli-Corpus, a member of the International Treaty Council, an organization founded in the US in 1974.

Tauli-Corpus added, “It was hoped that with this historical advancement, this respect would be reflected in the implementation of the Plan of Action of the WSSD (which is still not ready). We expect governments, UN Agencies and corporations to give the respect that indigenous peoples deserve in all future consultations, relationships, partnerships and negotiations.”

The UN took the first step in recognizing the privacy rights of indigenous peoples in 1993. The UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, adopted in 1993 at the Economic and Social Council’s Commission on Human Rights recognizes “the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights and characteristics of indigenous peoples, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.” Many indigenous peoples are also using the terms of the Biodiversity Convention to protect their lands and resources.

Last August, Daniel Brant, chief executive officer of the Assembly of First Nations, speaking in Montreal, discussed the need to include indigenous peoples in talks on the environment.

“We would like to see our philosophies reflected in Johannesburg and Durban,” he stated. He added that these philosophies must be included in all future summits.

Traditional Knowledge (Traditions of the First Nations people) has not readily been accepted by modern western culture. It may be partly due to the lack of knowledge. When pioneers explored Western Canada in the late 1750s, the lush grasslands was considered natural. What they were actually seeing was the result of centuries of Aboriginal land-use management. What was unknown to them was Aboriginal people periodically burned the Prairies to increase forage for bison and other animals–a classic example of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).

Despite the centuries of TEK, it is only in the last 20 years that issues of Traditional Knowledge have become increasingly important to governments, global conservation initiatives and sustainable use of natural resources.

The push for recognition got a major shove last March in British Columbia when the Indigenous Peoples Summit released the Declaration of the Indigenous Peoples Summit of the Americas.

The declaration includes 39 points calling on governments to protect the inherent rights of indigenous peoples to their land and territories and to self-determination, as well as protection to the environment while framing trade agreements, as well as the importance of having the term recognized.

Brant said at his lecture that the term “indigenous people” is more than a name and covers a way of life. “Indigenous peoples generally have a closer relationship with the land,” he said, explaining they have suffered the most profound effects of environmental degradation. He attributed the rise of illnesses and high suicide rates among First Nations people to the loss of traditional medicine, knowledge and places of worship.

The declaration is not yet approved but at the upcoming discussions on the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to be held in Geneva, Switzerland in December 2003, it is hoped will open the way to a smooth approval of the Declaration.

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