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UN General Assembly Passes Declaration on Indigenous Rights


The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a non-binding declaration on the rights of native peoples, despite opposition from the United States and three other countries. From U.N. headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

The 143 members of the General Assembly voted for the declaration that outlines the rights of some 370 million indigenous people worldwide.

Only the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia - all nations with large native populations - voted against the text, expressing concerns over some provisions, including those on self-determination and rights to land and resources. Eleven nations abstained from the vote.

The passage of the Declaration creates no new rights and does not place indigenous people in a special category, but it does lay out their rights in a number of areas including culture, employment and language, while prohibiting discrimination against them.

Latin American delegates, like Connie Taracena from Guatemala's U.N. Mission, welcomed the Declaration, saying it will benefit their region which has a large indigenous population. "My message to the indigenous people is that this is a great opportunity to celebrate and this really opens the door for a great future."

But representatives from several indigenous groups criticized the countries that did not support the measure. Phil Fontaine, leader of the Assembly of First Nations from Canada, says his country's vote against the Declaration is a blight on its human rights record.

"Canada can no longer present itself as one of leading proponents and defenders and protectors of human rights. It was able to do that until this moment. You cannot pick and choose the human rights that you will defend. It is clearly a slap in the face of indigenous peoples and a huge disappointment for us," he said.

Canada objected to the measure saying it lacks clear guidance for implementation, and conflicts with the existing Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - which the government believes already protects the rights of native peoples.

Last year the General Assembly deferred adopting the Declaration after African countries raised objections to language on self-determination and the definition of "indigenous" people. After the language was amended this year, they threw their support behind it.

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