Britain blocks protection for indigenous people

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The Independent Online

Britain is blocking an attempt by the world's 300 million indigenous peoples ­ including Maoris, Aboriginals and Native Americans ­ to have their rights protected under international law, The Independent has learnt.

Britain is blocking an attempt by the world's 300 million indigenous peoples ­ including Maoris, Aboriginals and Native Americans ­ to have their rights protected under international law, The Independent has learnt.

At the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, the Government is backing a clause in the final declaration stating that "the use of the term 'indigenous peoples'... cannot be construed as having any implications to rights under international law".

The move, initiated by America, has been vigorously pursued by Britain since Washington withdrew from the conference on Monday. If passed, the clause will leave indigenous peoples more vulnerable to persecution than they were before the conference began a week ago.

Human rights lawyers said they were "shocked and disgusted" by the Government's role, given that Britain did not have indigenous minorities. But political sources said the Government, represented by the Home Office minister Angela Eagle, was acting on behalf of Canada and Australia because those countries would be in a "politically difficult" position if they tried openly to curtail the rights of their own minorities.

Joe Hedger, an Aboriginal representing the Human Rights Council of Australia, said: "The move totally undermines the pursuit of self-determination and thus fundamental rights like land ownership, culture, language, fishing and hunting rights. It is a slap in the face to human rights."

Chief Violet Pacharos, of Canada's Grand Council of Crees, said self-determination included a people's right to dispose of its own resources. The Cree people's 400,000 sq km territory on James Bay, Quebec, was flooded for a hydroelectric development in 1980, forcing 13,000 people to move on to nine reserves. "We were not consulted then, and this clause will make it more difficult to demand the right to be consulted in the future," she said.

The draft declaration and action plan likely to emerge from the Durban conference will be crucial components of future minimum standards for human rights. This is why EU countries are determined not to use "the A-word" (apology) in references to the transatlantic slave trade, or to accept that it was a crime against humanity.

Britain is expected to succeed in its campaign over the term "indigenous people". But even if it fails, the Government hopes to ensure the passage of another US-drafted clause. It allows countries engaged in land disputes with indigenous people to respect their right of tenure only "wherever possible".

Mark Lattimer, of the British pressure group Minority Rights International, said: "At the same time as politicians are making noble speeches, their officials are working hard to insert disclaimers.

"Governments are more and more frightened of indigenous groups being given new rights. If this paragraph stays in, not only will the conference's plan of action not advance, but the clause is in danger of undermining existing protection for indigenous people enshrined in international treaties and international customary law."

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We are keen to protect the existing concept of international law whereby all individuals have the same human rights. We believe this conference should find a way of protecting the rights of groups and individuals without changing the fundamental principles of human rights law."

Mr Hedger described the British Government's reasoning as "astounding". He said: "Women are 'groups', children are 'groups' and refugees are named as a 'group' in international declarations." British Sikhs said yesterday that the Government had excluded them from the conference for being "a group".

Campaigners for indigenous people say they number about 300 million and live in all continents of the world. They are not always minorities ­ in Bolivia and Laos they constitute up to 80 per cent of the population ­ but they often face systematic repression. While traditional indigenous institutions exist in many cultures, only Greenland has an indigenous government. In Norway, Sweden and Finland, the Saami have their own parliaments.

The indigenous peoples at the conference are among a large number of groups who say they have felt marginalised at Durban, as the talks have become mired in political arguments over the Middle East and the slave trade.

Yesterday, 50 Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) began a strike in Durban demanding the retention of a clause in the draft declaration that protects individuals who are the victims of "descent and work-based discrimination".

Their spokeswoman, Jyothi Raj, said: "There are 260 million of us and this paragraph will protect many people. But the Indian government is lobbying hard against us."