A Step Forward for Promoting Indigenous Rights

Yesterday, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. will lend its support to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which recognizes a broad range of rights for indigenous peoples and articulates the rights set forth for indigenous peoples in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The decision is a reversal of the position taken by the Bush administration in 2007, when the U.S. voted against the UNDRIP even as 145 nations supported it. The ACLU and the Human Rights at Home Campaign have long called for unqualified endorsement of UNDRIP.

The endorsement is an important step forward that rectifies the Bush administration's rejection of an essential human rights document. The Obama administration's endorsement of the declaration is essential to protecting the rights of all indigenous peoples, especially Indian and Alaska Native nations in the United States.

In a statement today, the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) welcomed the endorsement which it considered "a positive, necessary and long-overdue step forward." However, the IITC expressed disappointment with the limitations the U.S. government placed on its support. According to the IITC, the administration's qualifications "call into serious question the U.S. government's intention to fully recognize and implement many of the key rights contained in the declaration." The IITC called on the U.S. to evaluate its laws and polices and bring them in line with the UNDRIP.

Even unqualified endorsement of the declaration is not enough. Effective promotion and implementation of the UNDRIP will require the Obama administration to work in full partnership with indigenous peoples, tribal governments and nations to address the serious human rights challenges that continue to face indigenous communities in this country.

For his part, President Obama acknowledged the need for implementation of the declaration, as told over 300 tribal leaders at the White House Tribal Nations Conference yesterday:

"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…. That's the standard I expect my administration to be held to."

As a first step, the administration should work closely with indigenous peoples, tribal governments and nations to develop specific plans to promote and implement the declaration. The government should evaluate and, wherever needed, raise its own laws and policies up to the minimum standard contained in the declaration. In addition, the Obama administration should issue an executive order to reconstitute the Inter-Agency Working Group on Human Rights, which is essential to promoting and implementing the UNDRIP and other declarations and ratified treaties.

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linda tolley

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