After 20 long years of back-room diplomatic negotiations, the United Nations Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples, which was passed yesterday, is probably as good as it was ever going to be. It is unfortunate then that four nations with significant indigenous populations - the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - chose to vote against the document, even though they failed to stop it passing 143-4 at the UN General Assembly now under way in New York. The situation is made even more regrettable because of the fact that the four are among the most respected voices on human rights.
The sweeping document recognises the right to self determination, in terms of politics and culture, for the world's estimated 370 million indigenous people. Outlying individual and collective rights, it covers their claims to redress, justice, culture, identity, education, employment and health, among other issues.
Opposing nations have voiced concern that the articles provide for too much interpretation, risking conflict with the existing legal rights of other citizens. The US has also voiced concern at a lack of consensus over its content. One of the document's most controversial provisions states that 'indigenous people have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used and acquired'. This provision is partially countered by a late amendment that the declaration cannot encourage actions that would risk even in part the 'territorial integrity or political unity of states'.
There are many other sensible provisions, too, whose spirit goes a long way to fostering equality, understanding and tolerance of peoples that too often lag behind the rest of society in terms of health, justice and education. That spirit is important, particularly as a declaration is not legally binding. It is hoped that the four countries that voted against the declaration still seek, as far as possible, to use it to guide their future policies and laws. Just as the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights has become the gold standard for governments since its adoption in 1948, this declaration must be allowed to take deep root in public policy.