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United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People

Category: Event
Date: 13 September 2007
Sub Category:Declaration
Subject Matter:Cultural Heritage | Customary Law | Law - Policy and Justice | Recognition of Traditional Rights and Interests
Summary Information:

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples elaborates on human rights standards as they apply specifically to Indigenous peoples.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 13 September 2007. The Declaration was the result of over 20 years of drafting, negotiating and consultation (Davis, 2007). The central tenet of the Declaration is that indigenous peoples have a right to self-determination (Davis, 2007). No new rights are created by the Declaration, instead it elaborates upon existing human rights in the context of the specific cultural, historical, social and economic circumstances of indigenous peoples.

These include rights to:

  • practice culture, traditions and customs;
  • not be forcibly removed from their lands;
  • not be subject to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture or lands;
  • be free from discrimination based on their indigenous origin or identity;
  • autonomy and self-government; and
  • participate in decision-making regarding matters which would affect their rights. (UNDRIP, 2007).

The Declaration also requires states, in consultation with indigenous peoples, to:

  • combat prejudice, eliminate discrimination and promote tolerance;
  • consult and cooperate with indigenous peoples to obtain consent before implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them;
  • take effective, and where appropriate, special measures to ensure the continuing improvement of indigenous economic and social conditions; and
  • give legal recognition and protection to indigenous lands, territories and resources. (UNDRIP, 2007).
Detailed Information:

Governments throughout the world worked directly with Indigenous peoples to develop a significant human rights document, with the drafting of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples beginning in 1985 (Macklin, 2009). Many prominent Indigenous Australians, including Les Malezer, Professor Lowitja O'Donohue, Professor Mick Dodson, Tom Calma, and Megan Davis played a significant role in developing the draft Declaration (Macklin, 2009).

Australia was one of four states who voted against the adoption of the Declaration. Australia's vote was motivated by concern regarding Article 26 of the Declaration which states that indigenous people have a right to own and control lands which they have traditionally used (ABC Staff, 2007). Australia further criticised the Declaration in the General Assembly, stating that the declaration placed customary law over national law (ABC Staff, 2007). The United States, Canada, and New Zealand also voted against the Declaration. In 2006, Australia stated they do 'not accept that it cannot, or should not, make any decisions directly relating to the rights and interests of Indigenous Australians without their "informed consent"' (CERD, 2006). 

Following the election of the Rudd Government, Australia reversed its stance and formally supported the Declaration on 3 April 2009 (Gardiner-Garden, 2011). The Declaration is not binding on state parties but instead provides a framework for global efforts to promote and protect indigenous peoples' rights (Gargett et al, 2013). Although the Declaration does not provide a complaints procedure, other United Nations bodies such as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People can assess state performance concerning indigenous peoples (Davis, 2007). Australia pledged to give practical effect to the Declaration and the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples as part of its candidacy to become a member of the Human Rights Council for 2018-2020 (Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, 2017).  

Despite officially supporting the Declaration, Australia's record of compliance is poor (Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, 2017). Most recently, the Special Rapporteur raised concerns about the extraordinary challenge and burden of proof placed on Indigenous peoples seeking native title determinations in the context of the historical forced removal and dispossession policies of Australia (Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, 2017).  Australia's international response to criticisms has been lackluster and generally limited to asserting that Australia has not contravened its responsibilities (CERD, 2006; 2017)


General Reference
United Nations General Assembly (2 October 2007) United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
UN Human Rights Council (8/08/2017) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights on Indigenous Peoples on her visit to Australia
Dr John Gardiner-Garden (10/05/2011) Overview of Indigenous Affairs: Part 2: 1992 to 2010
Andy Gargett et al (2013) The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: A manual for National Human Rights Insitutions
Journal Article
Megan Davis (2007) The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Media Release
Jenny Macklin MP, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (3 April 2009) Statement on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Newspaper Article
ABC Staff (15 September 2007) PM defends refusal to sign UN Indigenous Bill



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