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United States to back U.N. indigenous rights declaration

The United States will endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), making it the last industrialized power to support the agreement, which recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples on issues including free prior and informed consent (FPIC), right to sovereignty, territory and respect for traditional knowledge. The move was announced last week by President Barack Obama.

“Today I can announce that the United States is lending its support to this declaration,” Obama said during a meeting of Native American indigenous leaders in Washington D.C. “The aspirations it affirms — including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of native peoples — are (ones) we must always seek to fulfill.”

“What matters far more than words – what matters far more than any resolution or declaration – are actions to match those words.”

The announcement was welcomed by indigenous rights’ advocates.

“This endorsement reflects the worldwide acceptance of indigenous peoples and our governments as a permanent part of the world community and the countries where we live,” Robert T. Coulter, Executive Director of Indian Law Resource Center, said in a statement.

‘This is welcome news, a significant step towards universal acceptance that tribal peoples’ lives and ways of living are just as valuable as anyone else’s,” added Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, a group that campaigns on behalf of indigenous people. “But positive action needs to follow promising words; do not let this milestone become meaningless.”

Obama said the White House would provide further details on the endorsement at a later date. It remains unclear how the endorsement would affect U.S. policy overseas, but Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch, an activist group that campaigns on behalf of indigenous groups in the Amazon, said UNDRIP should be incorporated into all U.S. agreements.

“In addition to two million Native Americans within the U.S., there are hundreds of millions of indigenous people around the world who are affected by how the U.S. conducts itself in the international arena,” Miller said in a statement. “The Declaration’s key principles, including free prior and informed consent (FPIC), right to sovereignty, territory and respect for traditional knowledge, should be applied to all aspects of U.S. foreign policy, whether free trade agreements, climate negotiations, or development assistance through multilateral banks.”

The United States, along with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, initially objected to the resolution when it was adopted in 2007 due to concerns that it could threaten national sovereignty and lead to new land and resource claims from indigenous groups.

Excluding the United States, 148 countries have endorsed UNDRIP to date.

UNDRIP is not legally binding—countries that sign the declaration are not under any legal obligation to meet its objectives. Some indigenous rights’ groups are pushing for broader ratification of the International Labor Organization Convention 169 on tribal peoples, a legally binding instrument. According to Survival International, only twenty two countries have so far ratified ILO 169.

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