UN (Finally) Recognizes Indigenous Rights
Colleen Donovan-Togo

Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga, Eel Clan) was a driving force behind passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Here she speaks at a UN hearing on June 23, 2005. Photo: United Nations

On September 13, 2007 the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, with only four countries opposing. 

The Working Group on Indigenous Populations was given a mandate to draft a declaration in 1983, and Indigenous peoples’ organizations participated in the drafting process.  The result, long overdue and imperfect, is a tool and a framework written by First Peoples and human rights activists to combat systemic racism, inequities, and violence aimed at indigenous peoples, setting minimal standards for indigenous rights.

“The Declaration is not just a restatement of existing rights…it is a remarkably clear articulation of the nature of the obligations and entitlements that attach to those pre-existing rights in the case of Indigenous Peoples,” commented Craig Mokhiber, of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  

The Onondaga Nation has long played a vital role in international indigenous issues. In 1977 Onondaga leaders traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, on Onondaga Nation passports to join indigenous leaders from around the world in petitioning the UN to recognize indigenous rights.

A major force behind the Declaration was Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga, Eel Clan). President of the American Indian Law Alliance, Tonya was recently elected North American representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  “This was an historic day, and a step forward to help assure Indigenous Peoples’ treaty rights, human rights, and self-determination.”  She added, “Now adopted, the next step for governments of the world is to set forth their intended implementation strategies by reviewing and assessing their respective countries’ policies, legislation, programs and other applications in light of this new standard in all their dealings with Indigenous Peoples.”

The four dissenting countries, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US, all have large indigenous populations, and serious land rights issues.  Most contentious among dissenters and even visible in comments of countries voting yes were the issues of collective versus individual rights, land access and self-determination.

“Last, but not least, the Declaration supports the rights of indigenous people to own, develop, control and use the lands and territories which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used, including the right to restitution of lands confiscated, occupied, or otherwise taken without their free and informed consent,” commented S. James Anaya and Siegfried Wiessner in a 2007 op-ed in the online law review, The Jurist.

The adoption of the resolution shows that persistence and cooperation among diverse organizations (such as the arduous drafting process) can produce meaningful and important results.  To paraphrase Victor Hugo, one cannot resist an idea whose time has come.  In the same way that other major declarations (UN Charter, Geneva Convention, and Universal Declaration of Human Rights) have shaped our lives and public policy, one can only hope that this resolution, the Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights, will be as influential.

Colleen lives in Owego, NY and is active with Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation.