Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Native rights stance in UN vote lost allies for Canada

After sponsoring this resolution originally under Harper the government did everything it possibly could to defeat it. The Conservative government has been let off easy on this. This article shows the extent to which Canada lobbied against the motion and how Canada has lost respect worldwide as a result of its actions.

Native rights stance in UN vote lost allies for Canada

Massive support for Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was a stunning defeat for Canada.

by Kenneth Deer

UNITED NATIONS: Canada was not just at the wrong end of a losing vote here in September 2007 for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it was a glaring spotlight on a failed Tory government campaign, which cost Canada prestige and respect. And its actions will not be forgotten or disappear, as highlighted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, who said she was astonished that Canada voted against this declaration.

Criticism coming from a UN human rights expert is damaging enough, but Arbour is a Canadian and a former Supreme Court judge. She knows the Canadian constitution and legal framework as well as anybody, and her appointment to her position in the UN was with strong Canadian support.

According to the Canadian Press, Arbour cited the aboriginal rights issue as one example of a deeper malaise, suggesting her native country is flagging in its historic commitment to rise above narrow self-interest on the world stage.

If she sees no incompatibility with the Canadian Constitution between the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, then why does the Canadian government?

For over a year, Canada conducted an aggressive lobbying campaign against the declaration. It sent emissaries to New York City in an attempt to convince states about their concerns over the document. It also used its own ambassadors in various parts of the world to visit government capitals, using its vaunted human rights record as leverage to pressure states into agreeing to their changes. Near the end, it tried to obtain more than 40 changes to the declaration before the Sept. 13 vote.

Canada was the sponsor of the UN resolution that started the 11-year process leading to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Canadian government invested a lot of political capital and prestige to defeat the vote, which it has only used on issues like the Convention on the Elimination of Landmines. If only this campaign had such lofty goals as that convention.

Canada had some success at the beginning in stirring up fears. The African countries came up with their own list of 33 changes, stating that they did not take part in the original negotiations of the document and needed these amendments in order to vote in favour in the General Assembly.

However, the African nations showed flexibility and negotiated nine changes to the declaration to ease their concerns. One of them actually improved the text.

Canada was shut out from the negotiations and complained bitterly. Why? Because the Conservative government's extreme proposals could not generate significant support.

Canada had all the opportunity to get what it wanted over the last 11 years of debate on the declaration. Canada was the lead government and sponsor of the UN resolution that created the mechanism to elaborate a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada set the pieces in motion for 11 years of meetings and actively lobbied other governments to get involved in the process. Many times it encouraged states to be more flexible and reasonable in accepting the concerns of indigenous peoples.

Canada, particularly in 2004 and 2005, supported the Right of Self-Determination for Indigenous Peoples and convinced other states that this was consistent with their existing human rights obligations. So when Canada voted against the declaration the first time at the UN Human Rights Council in June 2006, other governments were very angry at Canada. Some called Canada "disingenuous" and felt that Canada had deliberately misled them to support the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples only to be betrayed by Canada at the end.

Canada lost many of its traditional allies. Even the United Kingdom voted in favour of the declaration. Canada damaged its influence and reputation with countries in the European Union, Latin America and parts of Asia and Africa. They were not willing to entertain Canada's long list of amendments.

The vote in the UN was 144 in favour and four against, with 11 abstentions. It was a stunning defeat for Canada, which knew it would lose the vote but not by such a large margin. It expected to be supported by Russia, Colombia and a few other countries, but they wisely decided to abstain rather than be recorded in history as blocking the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Still, the Harper government has not learned its lesson. It continues today in the United Nations to limit the application of the declaration in Canada. It lobbies hard to avoid having the United Nations' special rapporteurs, agencies and bodies apply the declaration in Canada or in any UN activity. Canada, along with the other three states that voted against the declaration, is seen as an obstructionist to the advancement of indigenous rights by other states and it reflects badly on the country.

Consternation about Canada's behaviour is not limited to other governments and human rights organizations. Inside the government itself, there are many who believe that Canada should support the declaration.

Amnesty International found out through an Access to Information request that the departments of Foreign Affairs, Indian Affairs and National Defence recommended that the government support the declaration. However, the government rejected this principled advice. Morale among the diplomatic corps was once again challenged by taking positions they don't personally support.

As the UN high commissioner for human rights says, many Canadians cling to an "unduly romantic vision" of their country as an international peacemaker and honest broker on the world scene-a vision largely rooted in the achievements of former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson and the Nobel Peace Prize he won half a century ago. "I think Canadians have an image of themselves that is now pretty dated, that is not reflective of the contemporary position," said Arbour.

Kenneth Deer is publisher and editor of the Eastern Door newspaper and is secretary of the Mohawk nation at Kahnawake

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