Feminist International

Radio Endeavour

July 2007

By FIRE – Feminist International Radio Endeavour
Radio Internacional Feminista

Press Release
July 12, 2007 

UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People: 
Linking women’s rights with collective rights

By Margaret Thompson

Systematic violations of collective rights of indigenous peoples are the greatest risk factor for gender-based violence against indigenous women, according to Celeste McKay, an international human rights analyst and advocate and Métis indigenous woman, who spoke at the Fifth Continental Meeting of Indigenous Women of the Americas in Kahnawake, Quebec in Canada, July 9-11, 2007.   

“This is the first international instrument to be adopted by the UN General Assembly that codifies the rights of indigenous peoples, and is seen as an essential advancement and recognition of human rights for indigenous peoples, including indigenous women in particular,” said McKay in an interview with FIRE.  She noted that passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is necessary for international legal protection from the violence done to indigenous peoples, including “the wrongs of colonization, under which indigenous peoples have suffered massive displacement of our lands, our cultures, and our spiritualities.”

McKay noted that indigenous women are organizing against gender-based violence, which includes sexual violence and discrimination, but also key in indigenous women’s struggle is the interrelationship between women gaining rights as individuals to live free of violence and gaining collective rights of their communities, including the right to sovereignty and rights as a nation.  

“It is important to look at the context, to make interconnections between violence against women and the loss of collective rights [of indigenous peoples] as a nation,” declared McKay.  Likewise, the Beijing +10 declaration by FIMI (Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indigenous or Indigenous Women’s Forum) stated:  “We maintain that the advancement of Indigenous Women’s human rights is inextricably linked to the struggle to protect, respect and fulfill both the rights of our Peoples as a whole and our rights as women within our communities, and at the national and international level.” 

McKay noted that the UN system as well as many in the international women’s movement focus more on oppression and rights of women as individuals, but there is an “interrelationship and inextricability of rights of indigenous women as individuals and their rights as part of nations or collectives and you how can’t separate out those rights.”

Analyzing these links involves making the connection between colonialism and patriarchy, according to Andrea Smith, an indigenous rights activist and scholar from the United States.  “Colonialism doesn’t work without patriarchy, so the colonists worked to instill patriarchy because it makes domination seem natural, so states could rule over indigenous peoples, men could rule over women.  Therefore, gender violence is a tool of colonization,” said Smith. 

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which has been under discussion for 20 years, was strengthened during the Decade of Indigenous Peoples from 1995-2004, but faces obstacles because of the opposition of some governments that resist recognizing the autonomous rights of indigenous peoples to their land, territories and resources.  A final vote on the Declaration by the UN General Assembly has again been delayed, despite approval by the UN Human Rights Council in August, 2006.  Opposition to the Declaration is led by the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among other nations.  

The UN Declaration addresses issues of protection of Indigenous peoples from discrimination and genocide, and affirms the right to maintain cultural traditions and secure access to lands and resources and the right to self determination. 

“For Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous women, exercising our rights—both as Indigenous Peoples and as women—depends on securing legal recognition of our collective ancestral territories,” said Myrna Cunningham, an indigenous Miskito woman of Nicaragua and a longtime human rights activist, in a statement she made as a co-author of the FIMI Report on Indigenous Women & Violence. “Our territories are the basis of our identities, our cultures, our economies, and our traditions.  Indigenous rights include the right to full recognition as Peoples with our own worldview and traditions, our own territories, and our own modes of organization within nation-states; the right to self-determination through our own systems of autonomy or self-government based on a communal property framework; and the right to control, develop, and utilize our own natural resources. “

This right to self determination is one of the most debated principles in the Declaration, which is a right granted to all peoples under the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, but has not been extended to indigenous peoples under colonization, said McKay.   The UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples would “essentially codify the right of self determination as equivalent to the right of all other peoples,” said McKay. 

However, McKay noted that governments such as the United States and Canada who oppose this provision argue that “the right of self determination standard is too high, that it needs to be further qualified in the document to ensure that existing sovereignty and integrity is not violated.” 

As a Canadian, McKay expressed her own and others’ strong disappointment about Canada’s strong opposition to the Declaration in its present form, which was the result of 20 years of negotiations and compromises by all parties including the government and indigenous peoples.  She said that she is concerned about Canada’s current conservative government’s “lack of integrity and disingenuous position,” and that Canada is becoming “an obstructor of human rights rather than a defender” as it has been in the past.   The previous Liberal government had endorsed the UN Declaration.

The final resolution of the 5th Continental Meeting calls on all governments, including Canada, to support the UN Declaration.

The United States, which has a history of contradictory attitudes and behavior toward international law fears the domestic implications of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Currently US corporations often have unregulated access to indigenous lands for extracting oil, natural gas, mining, and pharmaceutical companies, which enables them to reap enormous profits.  Affirming the rights of indigenous people’s to their land and resources is a key provision of the UN Declaration, and will likely restrict corporate access. 

Noelli Pocaterra, a Wayú woman from Venezuela, spoke to the 5th Continental Meeting about how her country had also opposed the Declaration, and asked the women participants to write a letter requesting the Venezuelan government’s support for the Declaration.  This letter was later presented by Pocaterra to the Venezuelan Ambassador to Canada. 

Andrea Smith said while the UN Declaration is an important step, she questioned the approach of using international instruments that call on the state to remedy oppression or discrimination, when in the case of indigenous women, it has been the state that is responsible for sexual violence and other oppressions.  She noted that many legal instruments call for criminal justice remedies of the state such as more police or prisons,  So “Indigenous women are in a contradiction looking to state to solve violence against Indigenous women when it was the state that was responsible for it.”

Smith suggested that Indigenous women and communities use the documents such as the UN Declaration to target the state as a perpetrator of violence.  McKay said that the document includes several provisions in which mitigation measures call for the state to work in conjunction with indigenous peoples to develop solutions that do not violate the rights to self governance, prior informed consent, and sovereignty of the native communities. 


For more information, contact María Suárez of FIRE at:

For more information about the Fifth Continental Meeting go to: http://www.faq-qnw.org/5conti/news.html

To see FIRE’s coverage of the Fifth Meeting of go to www.radiofeminista.org/ (Spanish) or www.radiofeminista.org/indexeng.htm (English).  

You may use FIRE information, audio files, and photos and give credit to FIRE (www.radiofeminista.net)


Other sources & links: 

 “Violence Against Women is Rampant Around the Globe,” City on the Hill Press(http://www.cityonahillpress.com/article.php?id=739)

FIMI Report, “Mairin Iwanka Raya:  Indigenous Women Stand Against Violence” (http://www.indigenouswomensforum.org/intadvocacy/vaiwreport.html)

Quebec Native Women Inc.:  http://www.faq-qnw.org/

FIMI – International Indigenous Women’s Forum (http://www.indigenouswomensforum.org/index.html)