Global Policy Forum

African Governments 'Block'

Advocacy Project
July 3, 2007

The governments of Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria and Namibia are leading a campaign by African governments to weaken a key UN Declaration that would protect the rights of indigenous peoples, according to advocates. The Declaration is the product of over 25 years of advocacy by indigenous peoples. It was adopted by the new UN Human Rights Council in June 2006, and sent to the UN General Assembly for what many expected would be swift approval.

Instead, in May this year, the African bloc of governments proposed a counter-draft that would change the draft in 36 places and seriously weaken key protections, including self-determination, land rights, natural resources and intellectual property. In an open letter to the President of the UN General Assembly, the Executive Director of the advocacy group Cultural Survival, Ellen Lutz, described the African draft as the "antithesis of what a human rights instrument is supposed to be - a backstop against arbitrary, harmful state action." The letter has been signed by 13 organizations, including The Advocacy Project. It was presented last week by Ms Lutz to the president of the General Assembly.

African opposition to the Declaration means there are now two opposing camps on indigenous rights at the Assembly. Mexico is leading a group of 60 governments that support the existing draft, but the Africans have been joined by several powerful governments with large indigenous populations, including Canada, the US, Russia, New Zealand, Australia and Colombia. Canada's position has proved particularly controversial, because the Canadians contributed actively during the long drafting process. Canada voted against the Declaration in the Human Rights Council last year, mainly on the grounds that it allowed indigenous peoples too much say in deciding how natural resources will be used. But the new Canadian government has significantly broadened its opposition to the draft and called for resumed negotiations in a statement last Friday. "Their (Canada's) list of concerns keeps growing," said Kenneth Deer, a leader from the Mohawk Nation and a long-time coordinator of the indigenous lobby at the UN. "It's hard to negotiate with a government that reneges on its commitments." Mr Deer and other human rights advocates were expelled from a plenary discussion on the issue in the General Assembly last Friday, at the insistence of the Russian delegation.

Advocates are disheartened that many of the governments lining up against the Declaration, like Canada, are traditional supporters of human rights. They also suggest that Botswana's opposition may stem from anger and embarrassment at having been criticized by human rights groups and Hollywood celebrities for a decision to expel some 2,000 San Bushmen from their traditional lands in the Kalahari desert. The Bushmen are thought to be the oldest living human culture on earth, and their land was turned over to the mining conglomerate DeBeers for exploitation. This, in the view of many, is precisely the sort of abuse that the Declaration seeks to prevent.

Until recently, many African states supported the Declaration and indigenous rights. The fact that they have been persuaded by Botswana and the others is seen as a sign of the growing solidarity in Africa on human rights, and the re-emergence of regional blocs in the UN human rights system, which is in the throes of a confused and difficult re-organization.

One result of this process has been the suspension of a key UN working group on indigenous rights. Set up in 1982, the group offered indigenous advocates the chance to participate in UN meetings without applying for "consultative status" - a process that has often been politicized. Indigenous advocates used the group to draft the Declaration, and they see its suspension as another serious blow to their aspirations.

Abby Weil (American University) is volunteering this summer as an AP Peace Fellow with ADIVIMA, a community group in Guatemala. ADIVIMA represents indigenous families who were expelled from their traditional lands in 1982 to make way for a World Bank-supported dam. They lost many relatives in subsequent massacres.

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