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LATIN AMERICA
Major advance for indigenous rights
Latinamerica Press
9/20/2007
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UN declares respect for autonomy, self-rule and ancestral lands of indigenous groups.

After 22 years of fierce debate, the United Nations General Assembly approved Sept. 13 the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which will help protect some 370 million indigenous people in the world.

The declaration, which was pushed by indigenous leaders particularly from Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, was approved with 143 votes in favor, and four against from Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand, as well as 11 abstentions, including Colombia.

The 46-article declaration establishes a framework for the respect of indigenous peoples’ rights, including self-rule, autonomy, land ownership, access to natural resources on lands they have traditionally held or used, and that the state provide these peoples with legal support to back their claim to these lands.

Also recognized are the rights to education, health care and employment, while strengthening indigenous culture and traditions in order to find a formula for development, according to their needs and aspirations.

Latin American indigenous leaders cheered the declaration’s approval.
“This is a great step in the indigenous peoples’ struggle,” said Bolivian President Evo Morales. “The right they’ve always had, but were denied, will now be broadly granted.”

Chilean Mapuche leader Aucan Wilcaman said that “international law has taken an important step in the recognition of collective rights.”

A non-binding declaration
The United Nations said that even though the declaration is non-binding, it “prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them.”

In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the decision a “victory” for indigenous communities around the world.

“A historic moment when UN member states and indigenous peoples have reconciled with their painful histories and are resolved to move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all,” he said in a statement.

He urged governments and civil society to immediately incorporate indigenous issues in their human rights and development agenda, and to create policies and programs on all levels of government to “ensure that the vision behind the declaration becomes a reality.”

According to the World Bank, 10 percent of the some 550 million Latin Americans are indigenous, and are among the region’s poorest and most marginalized sectors.

In Bolivia and Guatemala, where more than half of the population is poor, this figure rises to 75 percent among indigenous citizens, the World Bank says. In Ecuador, 96 percent of the indigenous population in rural areas is poor, and in Mexico, extreme poverty is 4.5 percentage points higher in indigenous municipalities compared with non-indigenous ones. In Peru, indigenous households comprise half of the poor households.

Nils Kastberg, director of the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, said in a statement that while regional instruments are important, they are insufficient if they are not accompanied by a strong political will for public policies that do not discriminate, legislative reforms and budget proposals that end the exclusion that affects millions of indigenous peoples throughout the world.

He noted that “for the majority of indigenous, social and economic indicators are even lower than national averages, which affects the development of their peoples.”

“We will do everything we can to make this declaration a reality,” he concluded.


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