Announcements by New Zealand and the United States this week on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples moved the world community tantalizingly close to achieving consensus on a human rights issue with ongoing relevance in many parts of the world.
The declaration protects indigenous rights related to land, resources, cultural identity, education and others issues. Only four countries — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States — opposed it when the U.N. General Assembly originally voted on it in 2007. Australia dropped its opposition to the instrument last year.
On Monday, New Zealand said it would sign the declaration. The next day, Reuters reported that the Obama administration would reconsider U.S. objections, citing a statement by U.S. Ambassador the U.N. Susan Rice to that effect. Canadian authorities have repeatedly acknowledged plans to do the same.
Of course, a U.N. declaration is non-binding and has no real legal status on which affected communities could launch judicial challenges. Many countries have signed on to the instrument with public caveats on how and to what extent they will adhere to guidelines.
But it does create a framework and an international standard. Also, such a broad consensus on a politically delicate issue bodes well for the future of joint action on other common concerns.
Around the globe, indigenous communities have historically been subjected to shady business deals, forced relocation and assimilation programs, and wars in order to separate them from their lands. Such struggles continue today in Africa, Asia and South America. In most of the current cases — like Argentina, Burma and Peru — resource extraction or resource management is a key component of the battle.