Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Smallest Nations Greet UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 18 – Even though their own government failed to support the measure, leaders of Russia’s smallest ethnic minorities are welcoming the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a major step forward in their quest for international support toward a better life for their communities.
Sergei Kharyuchi, the president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), issued a statement on that organization’s website on Saturday calling the adoption of this measure as “a major step forward” in the international recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples (http://www.raipon.org, September 15).
Last Thursday, by a vote of 143 in favor, four against, and 11 abstaining, the UN General Assembly passed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The four countries voting against were the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of whose representatives said the document was dangerously vague.
The 11 who abstained for various reasons included the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Columbia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Samoa.
The declaration, which members of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues over the past 24 years, has no legal force, but its declarations are likely to be invoked by the world’s more than 5,000 small nationalities, a group that totals some 370 million people in more than 70 countries around the world.
The provisions to which the US, Canada Australia and New Zealand objected and the ones that many of the smallest nations are most interested in seeing adopted were three. First, the declaration’s third article specifies that small peoples have “the right to self-determination.”
Even though language was inserted at the last minute at the insistence of representatives of African nations that this right must not threaten existing state borders, the four countries that voted against the measure argued that the insertions were insufficient to prevent problems in this regard.
Second, Article 26 of the declaration states that aboriginal peoples “have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise used or acquired.” Minorities could in principle invoke this against the current owners of such resources with unpredictable consequences.
And third, Article 19 – to which the Canadian government was particularly opposed (http://www.thestar.com/printArticle/256867) -- says that governments should consult indigenous peoples “in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent” before taking any steps that affect them.
That provision too, if taken seriously, could complicate the lives of governments in a large number of countries – even those which in recent years have had relatively good records in dealing with aboriginal populations not to speak of those states whose records have been mixed or worse.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the vote was “a triumph for indigenous peoples around the world” and represents “a historic moment” when they and member states have “reconciled their painful histories,” a view echoed by General Assembly President Haya Al Khalifa (http://us.oneworld.net/article/view/153160/1/4536).
Supporters of minority peoples were also enthusiastic. Vivian Stromberg, director of the MADRE rights group, for example, said the vote pointed to “a major shift in the landscape of international human rights laws, in which the collective rights of indigenous peoples will finally be recognized and defended.
But because the measure is not binding, others were less optimistic, fearful that the “gap” between rhetoric and reality on these issues could grow.
One place where that is very much a possibility is the Russian Federation. The numerically small peoples of the North and Amur River valley number fewer than two million but sit on roughly the third of the country where most of its oil, gas and other natural resources are located.
In the tsarist and Soviet periods and even since 1991, the central government and business interests in Russia typically have run roughshod over their interests, confident that the Russians had and have both the numbers, the money and the coercive force to do whatever they like.
Over the last decade or so, groups like RAIPON have expanded their contacts with groups like the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and the UN in the hopes that this will give them increased leverage with Moscow. To a certain extent, they have been successful.
But this latest UN action is certain to raise both expectations on the part of these aboriginal groups and fears on the part of Russian officials and businessmen. And that in turn almost certainly guarantees that there will be a new round of potentially serious conflicts between the two..

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