President Obama announced Thursday that the U.S. would reverse the position of the Bush administration and become the last nation to drop its opposition to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Mr. Obama made the announcement to enthusiastic applause at the second White House Tribal Nations Conference, a gathering attended by representatives of the nation’s 565 recognized American Indian tribes.
“The aspirations it affirms - including respect for the institutions and rich cultures of native peoples - are ones we must always seek to fulfill,” Mr. Obama said at the conference, held at the Interior Department. “But I want to be clear: What matters far more than words - what matters far more than any resolution or declaration - are actions to match those words. And that’s what this conference is about.”
The nonbinding declaration recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination, as well as their institutions, cultures and traditions, and prohibits discrimination against them. When the document was introduced in 2007, 143 countries voted to approve it, 11 abstained, and four - the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia - voted to oppose it.
Since then, the other three nations have switched their votes in support of the declaration, leaving the U.S. as the lone holdout.
John R. Bolton, a U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush, called the announcement “exactly the kind of mushy, feel-good multilateralist gesture one would expect from President Obama.”
Objections to the declaration include its potential to conflict with U.S. law, its failure to define exactly who indigenous peoples are, and its support for tribes seeking claims on lands occupied hundreds of years ago. Article 26 of the declaration states that “indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”
Before signing, Canada hedged its support by adding that the declaration would be endorsed “in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws,” a caveat that was included over the objections of that country’s tribal leaders.
The State Department is expected to issue details on the signing that could include similar conditions.
“We’re holding our breath to see what the State Department releases,” said Kenneth Deer, secretary of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawke in Canada. “We’re hoping it’s not as mean-spirited as Canada’s. That [document] was couched in very restrictive terms, and I don’t know how many times it said ‘nonbinding.’ “
Mr. Deer, who has been involved in the drafting and promotion of the declaration since 1987, said the Obama administration’s decision to sign the document makes the declaration a “consensus document of the U.N.,” lending it greater heft in international discussions and forums.
He dismissed the warnings of critics who say the document could be used to argue for massive land transfers back to North America’s Indian tribes, but agreed that the declaration offers support for reparations.
Article 28 states that indigenous peoples “have the right to redress,” which can include “restitution” or “just, fair and equitable compensation” for lands and resources they have traditionally owned or occupied, but which have been “confiscated, taken, occupied” without their consent.
“It’s not that all indigenous lands have to be returned to indigenous peoples. We have to respect the rights of people who are on the land now,” Mr. Deer said. “What the states have been saying is, ‘This is not your land anymore,’ but the declaration is saying, ‘Yes, this is their land, and you have to deal with it.’ “
The Obama administration signaled that it would reconsider the declaration when U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice said at a meeting of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April that the U.S. would review its position.
Since then, the administration has solicited comments from tribes and examined the language for conflicts with local, tribal, state and national governments.
Robert Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, described Mr. Obama’s decision as “the most significant development in international human rights law in decades.”
“International human rights law now recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples as peoples, including rights of self-determination, property and culture,” Mr. Coulter said in a statement.
There are more than 370 million indigenous people in about 70 countries worldwide, according to U.N. estimates. About 2 million live in the United States as members of Indian tribes and nations.