Towards a community of decency
Australian Passionist priest, Kevin Dance, the Passionists’ International representative at the United Nations, New York, appeals for Australians of good will to contact their Federal Members of Parliament and Government Ministers, urging them to join the community of justice and decency. This appeal follows Australia’s opposition – along with that of New Zealand and the United States – to the adoption of the Declaration on Indigenous Rights at the 5th session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Convinced that a declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples will greatly advance the rights and aspirations of the world’s indigenous and tribal peoples, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has recommended to the General Assembly’s 61st session the adoption of the most recent version of the long-negotiated draft of a declaration.
Australia, New Zealand and the United States, in two joint submissions to the fifth session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, spoke firstly against the draft declaration – declaring it to be fundamentally flawed – and secondly, attempting to show that the Permanent Forum was trying the promote a definition of “free, prior and informed consent” prematurely.
The Forum sees the adoption of this draft declaration as the most pressing task and a major achievement for the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which was launched on May 15. Forum Chairperson Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, of the Philippines, added in her closing remarks that its adoption was “crucial”, because that would be the framework for a real partnership to be forged between Governments and indigenous peoples.
To mark the launch of the Plan of Action for the Second UN International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the General Assembly Hall was, for the first time, the site for the opening of a session of the Permanent Forum – the Forum being the proud child of the First International Decade. The major theme was The Millennium Development Goals and Indigenous Peoples: Redefining the Millennium Development Goals.
Writing from New York, Fr Dance explains the two joint statements crafted by Australia, New Zealand and the United States:
The first statement, focussing on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was presented by New Zealand, speaking for the other two governments, although the USA was not in attendance. The presenter, Head of the NZ delegation, Mr Clive Pearson, described the “final compromise text” of the declaration as “fundamentally flawed”, saying that the provisions for articulating self-determination for indigenous peoples were “inconsistent with international human rights law and even attempt to reinterpret the Covenants of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights on civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights”.
The statement suggested that any attempt to bring the document in its present form - more than 10 years in negotiation - to a vote would be irresponsible and would create confusion, ambiguity and set a dangerous precedent: “It risks giving a minority power of veto over the laws of a democratic legislature”.
The second statement was presented by the Head of the Australian Delegation, Mr Peter Vaughan, and again USA was not present.
This statement attempted to show that the Permanent Forum was trying to promote a definition of free, prior and informed consent prematurely. The statement contended that a recent expert workshop on “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” could not be used to suggest that there was now a “common understanding” of the meaning of this principle. It was appropriate for indigenous people to be involved in “consultation”, but “the assertion that particular subsets of citizens have the power of veto by withholding consent is not acceptable”, setting a dangerous precedent.
The three partners called for a time of reflection so that the Declaration might be adopted by true consensus in the General Assembly.
Fr Dance said that Professor Mick Dodson, permanent Forum Member and its rapporteur, responded to the joint statement, saying that there were ‘only three states advocating the non adoption of the Declaration’. Mexico, which earlier had reservations about the draft declaration, expressed strong support for the Declaration and asked that it be accepted as soon as possible.
“Regarding the right to veto legislative action, Prof. Dodson said that Australia may have already set a precedent. He mentioned the Kakadu Lease Act setting up the national park, which says that if it is changed without the consent of the Indigenous people it would constitute a legislative breach.
“He also described the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly (NTLA) as a subservient body to the Federal Parliament which can overturn its decisions. The NTLA has passed an Act requiring the consent of the tribal owners and a two-thirds majority of the Legislative Assembly before the Act can be amended. This has not been challenged.
“Prof. Dodson ended by saying he would favour an extended period of reflection if there was overwhelming support for the joint position just put forward. His statement was greeted with extended applause.”
Fr Dance said that the major theme of reshaping the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) called for a rights-based approach to the MDG and to much greater participation and involvement of indigenous people. The values and cosmo-vision of indigenous peoples must be taken into account if the MDGs were to assist them out of poverty rather than make their position more threatened.
Fr Dance, who as a member of the Passionists’ International Commission for Solidarity, Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, has been based at the UN since 2001, says the Forum is among the most interactive of the different parts of the United Nations.
The 16 Forum members meet in the presence of hundreds of indigenous organisations of women and men from all over the world. They listen to their stories, their challenges and their requests. Forum members then interact with UN agencies charged with translating the Forum recommendations into action, and with UN member states.
“The Forum is a wonderful opportunity for Indigenous women, men and young people to gather, to hear one another, to inspire the wider community with their spiritual vision, and to draw strength for the struggles that still lie ahead of them,” he said.
“It seems to me that it is vital that there is strong and consistent approach to the governments of Australia, New Zealand and the US, to press them to stop blocking the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
This Sunday, July 2, communities around Australia will celebrate National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday.
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