Final adoption of the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples deferred by African states

IWGIA update, June 2007

In June 2006 the UN Human Rights Council adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with 32 votes in favour and 2 votes against. African states who voted in favour included South Africa, Cameroon and Zambia. Twelve states abstained from the vote including six states in Africa, being Algeria, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.

Due to this overwhelming support it was expected that the Declaration would be finally adopted by the General Assembly in November 2006. However, at this late stage it emerged that some African States had serious difficulties with the text of the Declaration and were not prepared to accept the recommendation made by the Human Rights Council to adopt the Declaration. It should be noted that most African states had previously barely participated in the more than 20 years long process of developing the text of the Declaration. Namibia presented an amending resolution, which called for the vote on the Declaration to be deferred to allow more consideration, and to the great surprise of all this resolution was adopted. Shortly thereafter the African group issued a Draft Aide Memoire describing the concerns of the African Group.

Within the African group there were some states that were strongly in support of the Declaration and they endeavoured to challenge the views of Namibia, Botswana and other dissenting states. However the African states agreed to consider the Declaration in unity and to delay any voting on the Declaration until they had an opportunity to resolve the issues.

The issue of the UN Declaration was also brought up in the Summit of the AfricanUnion (AU) in January 2007 where the AU issued a Decision that echoed the same concerns as the Aide Memoire and encouraged the African states to act as a united block on this matter.

Unfortunately the concerns of the African states are to a large extent based on lack of information, and a group of respected African human rights experts therefore made a thorough written response note to the Aide Memoire, which has been widely circulated in English and French. With the assistance of IWGIA, a group of 6 African experts undertook a visit to New York in April 2007 where they met with 19 African embassies and discussed the issue of the Declaration. Likewise IWGIA in collaboration with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues organized a roundtable with the participation of African Permanent Missions and other Permanent Missions.

The African indigenous umbrella organization “Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee” (IPACC) also drafted a response to the Aide Memoire.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights debated the issue of the UN Declaration at its 41st session in Ghana in May 2007. The African Commission reiterated its positive stance towards the adoption of the Declaration considering that it is in line with the African Charter, and the stance and jurisprudence of the African Commission on the issue of indigenous peoples’ rights. The African Commission decided to make an Advisory Opinion on the matter in English and French, which has been submitted to the AU and discussed at the AU Summit in Ghana in July 2007.

In the meantime a small delegation of indigenous experts has visited the governments of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo and Burundi and further engaged in dialogue on the UN Declaration.

Considering all the efforts employed to establish dialogue with African states, it is now to be hoped that a good number of African states will appreciate the importance of adopting the UN Declaration when the present session of the General Assembly ends in September 2007.

Read the Indigenous Caucus' statement of support to the amended Declaration (pdf)