Indigenous groups hail declaration breakthrough

Down to Earth No. 70, August 2006

Indigenous peoples have warmly welcomed the adoption by the newly-established United Nations Human Rights Council of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which will now be forwarded to the UN General Assembly for approval before the end of the year, was adopted on June 29th, with 30 members in favour, two against and twelve abstentions. The Declaration is widely viewed as an important tool to eliminate human rights violations against over 347 million indigenous people worldwide as well as gain recognition and protection for their rights.

Such tools are desperately needed in countries like Indonesia, where indigenous peoples have been marginalised for decades by top-down development, and resource exploitation schemes which have a devastating impact on their lives.

Victoria Corpuz, chair of the UN's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, described the adoption of the Declaration as a "momentous occasion". In a statement for the Indigenous Peoples' Caucus, the indigenous grouping which helped draft the declaration, she said:

"One of the most important outcomes has been that throughout all of our expressions, sometimes in our own languages, we have succeeded in educating the international community about the status, rights and lives of Indigenous peoples in every corner of world...The true legacy of the Declaration will be the way in which we, the Indigenous peoples of the world, in partnership with states, breathe life into these words... ...The real test will be how this will affect the lives of our people on a daily basis."

(Indigenous Peoples' Caucus Closing Statement, 29 June, 2006)

The Declaration, which took eleven years to negotiate, sets a new standard for indigenous peoples' rights. These include:

  • the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.
  • the right to be free from any kind of discrimination.
  • the right of self-determination and, by virtue of that right "they freely determine, their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development".
  • the right to autonomy or self-government in internal and local affairs.
  • the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or used.
  • the right to redress for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been taken or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.
  • the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.
  • the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.

Under the Declaration, indigenous people are not to be forcibly removed from their lands or territories and there is to be no relocation without their free, prior and informed consent and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.

The Declaration contains a series of measures for states, including the obligation to:

  • obtain indigenous peoples' free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing laws or administrative measures that may affect them.
  • take measures, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, to ensure that indigenous women and children enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.
  • give legal recognition and protection to indigenous lands and resources with due respect the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.
  • undertake effective consultations with the indigenous peoples concerned, through appropriate procedures and through their representative institutions, prior to using their lands or territories for military activities.
  • in consultation and cooperation with indigenous peoples, to take the appropriate measures, including legislative measures, to achieve the ends of the Declaration.

In their pre- or post-vote statements, several Council members 'clarified' their position on certain elements of the Declaration, reflecting the difficulties during the long drafting process. Among the most problematic were the issues of self-determination and collective rights. Several states, including the UK and Germany, observed that the Declaration was not legally-binding, and interpreted the right of self-determination as one to be exercised within the territory of a state, without impact on the state's territorial integrity. The UK reiterated that it did not accept the concept of collective rights under international law - a position that has long been strongly criticised by indigenous groups and NGOs. Japan's representative also stated that it did not recognise collective rights.

Indonesia's representative, Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja, said his country had followed the negotiations closely over the past 11 years and supported the adoption of the declaration. He added that Indonesia was a multicultural nation that did not discriminate against its population on any grounds. This view is not shared by Indonesia's indigenous peoples' alliance, AMAN, which says the majority of indigenous peoples in Indonesia are still living in poverty and suffering from human rights violations because their rights to land and natural resources have not been recognised. In a joint statement issued a day before the Council's vote, AMAN and the environmental group, WALHI, criticised Indonesia's lack of support for the Declaration and urged the Indonesian member to support its adoption. AMAN and WALHI also called for Indonesia to make political steps to "respect, fulfil and acknowledge the existence and rights of indigenous peoples in Indonesia."

(Sources: AMAN & WALHI Press Release 28/Jun/06; Indigenous Peoples' Caucus Closing Statement 29/Jun/06;; Human Rights Council Press Release 29/Jun/06, via AMAN.)


Indonesia and the Human Rights Council

Indonesia was elected to sit on the UN's new Human Rights Council along with other members in May this year. The Council, which replaces the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, has seats for 47 of the UN's 191 member states. Unlike the Commission, the Council meets throughout the year and has its membership restricted to countries that "abide by the highest human rights standards". Indonesia was one of 11 Asian nations officially listed as candidates for the Council's membership.

In addition to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Council also adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.

In his statement to the final session of the Human Rights Commission, Indonesia's Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Makarim Wibisono expressed his hopes that the new Council would not engage in the "politicisation, selectivity and double standards" of which the Commission had been accused.

Indonesia could itself be accused of double standards. Last year, it opposed Secretary General Kofi Annan's proposal to establish the Council. Also, at international level, Indonesia pledges support to the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. However, Indonesia told the OHCHR to wind up its mission in Jakarta last year and has not extended any further invitation.

In comparison to other Asian candidates, Indonesia submitted the most elaborate plan of actions to be undertaken at national and international level. Nevertheless, Indonesia suffers from serious credibility crisis because of the systemic impunity provided to the security forces, especially in armed conflict situations.

Amnesty International has launched a new website listing the human rights records of all candidates to the UN Council. The Indonesia page draws attention to reports of arbitrary arrests, unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment in West Papua and the fact that independent human rights monitoring there is hampered by tight restrictions on access to the region by foreign journalists and other international human rights monitors, as well as by harassment and intimidation of local activists.

It also points out that:

"Members of the police have used excessive force on various occasions, including against demonstrators and detainees. In September 2005, 37 people were wounded when the police shot into a crowd of around 700 peasant farmers in Tanak Awuk, Lombok Island. The gathering was organized to commemorate National Peasants' Day and to discuss land issues. The police said they were responding to people attacking them." 

(Sources: Indonesia's permanent mission to Geneva: 
Asian Centre for Human Rights
UN News service, 29/Jun/06)

The Human Rights Council website is at: