UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Frequently Asked Questions

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007 by a vote of 144-4. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States voted against the Declaration. Since then, all four countries have endorsed it. Here are some commonly-asked questions. If you’d like to learn more, check out additional resources on our campaign pages!

Why did Canada vote against the UNDRIP in 2007?

The Government of Canada said the Declaration is incompatible with Canada’s Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; that it affirms only the collective rights of Indigenous peoples and fails to balance individual and collective rights or the rights of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples; and that the articles on free, prior and informed consent effectively give Indigenous peoples a veto over projects in Canada.

Is the Declaration consistent with Canada’s constitution?

Yes. In a May 1, 2008 Open Letter, over 100 legal scholars and experts working in the fields of Indigenous rights and/or constitutional law in Canada stated: “No credible legal rationale has been provided to substantiate these extraordinary and erroneous claims.” The experts added that the Declaration is not only consistent with the Canadian Constitution and Charter, but it also “is profoundly important for fulfilling their promise.”

Does it balance individual and collective rights?

The Declaration has 17 provisions that address individual rights. International human right lawyer Paul Joffe, a recognized expert on the Declaration says that it contains “some of the most comprehensive balancing provisions that exist in any international human rights instrument. According to Article 46 (3), for example, all provisions in the Declaration ‘shall be interpreted in accordance with the principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, [and] equality.”

Is Free, Prior and Informed Consent a veto?

There is no reference to veto in the Declaration, and the right to free, prior and informed consent is not automatically a veto since it is a human right that exists relative to the rights of others. Instead, according to Kenneth Deer, Indigenous rights activist and former chair of the Indigenous Caucus at the United Nations, it is “a means of participating on an equal footing in decisions that affect” Indigenous peoples.

Has Canada always opposed the Declaration?

No. Prior to January 2006, Canada was actively involved in drafting the Declaration’s text, including those articles dealing with treaties, resource extraction and self-determination.

How did Canada qualify its endorsement?

When the Government of Canada endorsed the Declaration on November 12 2010 it admitted to being concerned but said it is “confident that Canada can interpret the principles expressed in the Declaration in a manner that is consistent with our Constitution and legal framework.” This was the main message of the May 2008 experts’ letter. However, the press release announcing the endorsement reiterated language from the March 2010 Throne Speech that was rejected by Indigenous peoples. Canada said it was endorsing the Declaration “in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws.” Canada also said the Declaration is an “aspirational document” and that it “does not reflect customary international law.” Both statements are not true. Canada has never before placed qualifications on its support for international human rights instruments. Most Indigenous peoples took exception to the qualifications, but focused on the need for Canada to work with them to ensure the Declaration is fully implemented.

Why do Indigenous peoples need a separate agreement when we already have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments?

The Declaration responds to the “urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples,” and elaborates international human rights standards for the “survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.” The Declaration does not create new or special rights but elaborates on fundamental, universal human rights within the cultural, economic, political and social contexts of Indigenous peoples, and “the obligations of states to respect, protect, and fulfill these rights.”

What difference will it make?

Like other international human rights instruments, the Declaration will encourage States to reform laws and practices so that human rights are respected. In June 2010, a group of Aboriginal and civil society organizations across Canada pointed out that it “is especially useful in interpreting Indigenous Peoples’ Treaties with States. It serves to fill in any gaps from a human rights perspective. Such Treaties, including land claims agreements, embrace a diverse range of human rights.”

What has happened in other nations that have endorsed the Declaration?

Greenland recently negotiated with Denmark for significantly enhanced self-government, which its Premier describes “as a de facto implementation of the Declaration and … hopefully an inspiration to others.”

In Belize, the Supreme Court relied in part on the UN Declaration in an October 2007 case that affirmed the land and resource rights of the Maya people.

In Suriname, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights used the UN Declaration in its November 2007 ruling on the land rights of the Saramaka people.

Does the Declaration have anything to do with Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one important step that the Government of Canada, Canadian churches, and Indigenous peoples have taken to build a new relationship. Indigenous leaders, such as National Chief Shawn Atleo, have argued that endorsing the Declaration would be one more positive step forward in that direction.

Filed in: Indigenous Rights, UNDRIP Blog Updates

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