|Open Letter: Draft U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples|
Request for full and ongoing Canadian government support
June 27, 2006
Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Dear Right Honourable Prime Minister:
Re: Draft U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Request for full and ongoing Canadian government support
We are writing to respectfully express our deep concern that your government has not yet indicated its clear support for the draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Many other countries are strengthening their commitment to Indigenous peoples’ human rights and the latest text proposed by the Chair of the Working Group. However, the Government of Canada’s previous prominent role and earlier support seems to be diminishing.
For over 20 years, international law experts, States and Indigenous peoples from all parts of the world have invested a great deal of time and effort at the United Nations to discuss the urgent and essential human rights standards included in the Declaration. At this historic juncture, Canada should reinforce its longstanding human rights commitments.
The Declaration explicitly provides in a fair and balanced manner that the “human rights … of all shall be respected”. All of its provisions “shall be interpreted in accordance with the principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, equality, non-discrimination, good governance and good faith”. These are the core principles and values of Canadian and international human rights law.
1. Significant positive momentum
During the past year, there has been significant positive momentum in favour of Indigenous peoples’ human rights. In the 2005 World Summit Outcome, the General Assembly and the Heads of State and Government reaffirmed their “commitment to continue making progress in the advancement of the human rights of the world’s indigenous peoples … and to present for adoption a final draft United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples as soon as possible.” In the Programme of Action for the Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, the General Assembly and its Member States agreed that “adoption [of the Declaration] early in the Decade should be a priority for the Second Decade”.
Further, on May 26, 2006, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues highlighted that the U.N. Declaration is an “an instrument of great value to advance the rights and aspirations of the world’s indigenous peoples.” The Forum recommended by consensus “the adoption without any amendments of the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples … by the General Assembly during its sixty-first session, in 2006.”
Clearly, there is widespread and growing global support for the latest text of the U.N. Declaration to be adopted this year by the General Assembly.
With respect to Indigenous peoples’ human rights, Canada has played in recent years a leadership role at the United Nations and other international fora. Therefore, we are concerned that your government may arrest this highly effective initiative and now assume a regressive approach.
2. Questionable government actions
In our considered view, the following actions are not in keeping with the “spirit of partnership and mutual respect” that is a principal objective of the Declaration. Rather, these actions appear to establish a disturbing pattern that serves to impede cooperation, social justice and the enjoyment of our most basic human rights:
1. Despite severe socio-economic disparities affecting Indigenous peoples, your government has decided not to honour the Kelowna Accord that was agreed to by all First Ministers and national Indigenous leaders in November 2005. This unilateral action undermines the federal principle in Canada. It is also inconsistent with Canada’s commitments under the U.N. Millennium Declaration, Inter-American Democratic Charter and other international instruments to respect human rights and combat poverty. On May 17, 2006, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its concern that “poverty rates [in Canada] remain very high among disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups such as Aboriginal peoples”.
2. In regard to climate change, your government has sought to scuttle the Kyoto Accord and prevent the global adoption of “stringent targets” to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. As indicated in the December 2004 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people: “The effects of global warming and environmental pollution are particularly pertinent to the life chances of Aboriginal people in Canada’s North, a human rights issue that requires urgent attention”.
3. In seeking election to the Human Rights Council, Canada’s “Commitments and Pledges” (April 10, 2006) provide that “Canada commits to actively pursue the implementation of human rights domestically, including with respect to racism, indigenous people …” By omitting any commitment to the human rights of Indigenous “peoples”, Canada fell far short of its existing international obligations, as well as the rule of law enshrined in Canada’s Constitution.
4. Canada’s “Commitments and Pledges” do not contain any support for the adoption by the General Assembly of the latest text of the Declaration. This omission has potentially far-reaching adverse consequences, especially since many States are often influenced by Canada’s human rights positions. In contrast, States such as Finland, France, Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil have actively pledged their support for adoption of the Declaration.
5. On May 17, 2006, Canada made a Statement at the Permanent Forum, opting not to indicate any positive support for the adoption by the General Assembly of the latest text of the Declaration. Yet this topic was a key human rights matter that was extensively discussed during the Forum. In addition to the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, countries such as the Philippines, Norway and Ecuador reiterated their unequivocal support for adoption of the Declaration.
6. During the past two months, substantive discussions and meetings with federal officials on matters relating to the Declaration have significantly diminished. These experienced officials are no longer in a position to engage in meaningful discourse or cooperation. This situation stands in sharp contrast to the mutually respectful method of collaboration that has been established with the Canadian delegation for the past two years. Through such dialogue, “harmonious and cooperative relations” that are emphasized in the Declaration were significantly enhanced. Any concerns that arose were carefully discussed and resolved together in a timely and exemplary manner.
7. In late February and early March 2006, Indigenous Chiefs and leaders wrote to you and your Ministers urging that Canada maintain its leadership role in this critical period relating to the Declaration. Meetings with your Ministers were also requested. No substantive response was ever received. Our democratic participation and input were in effect terminated.
We are aware that United States, Australia and New Zealand are aggressively lobbying Canada and other countries to oppose the adoption of the Declaration. Each of these States has been the subject of "early warning and urgent action" procedures by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in respect to their appalling treatment of Indigenous peoples. Each of these countries has played an obstructionist role in the standard-setting process, offering extreme, discriminatory, unsubstantiated and erroneous positions that have noticeably isolated them from many other States and Indigenous peoples. Rather than promote respect for Indigenous peoples’ human rights, these three States are exacerbating our insecurity worldwide.
Hopefully, Canada will instead align itself with countries who are taking a respectful and principled stand on the human rights of Indigenous peoples. To do otherwise would cause extreme prejudice to over 370 million Indigenous people globally. The rampant human rights violations faced by Indigenous peoples would unjustly continue with virtual impunity.
3. Need for a bi-partisan, principled approach
Clearly, the promotion and respect for our human rights should remain a bi-partisan matter in Canada. In relation to our rights, Canada must uphold the honour of the Crown. In addition, all members of the Human Rights Council, including Canada, have an explicit duty to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”. It is a central responsibility and mandate of the Council to “promot[e] universal respect for the protection of all human rights … for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner”.
We have heard that your government may qualify its support for the Declaration, by adding a list of understandings or concerns. Such an approach would be inappropriate and undermine the aspirational objectives of the Declaration. It would send contradictory messages to the international community. For Canada – an elected member of the Human Rights Council – to distance itself in this way from the Declaration would be to devalue its essential worth. Especially in its inaugural session, the Human Rights Council must uphold the highest human rights standards. It is only in this way that reform of the United Nations system can truly succeed and promote the dignity and rights of all peoples.
For all of the above reasons, we urge that your government actively encourage the adoption without amendment or qualification of the Chair’s proposed text of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
UBCIC is a NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.