The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

By Karine Duhamel

Tags for The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

A drawn image of a group of people dressed in various garments, both traditional and non-traditional. The person in front is holding up a blank page, meant to symbolize the Declaration.

Illustration by Boyoung Kim.

Story text

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) affirms the inherent or pre‐existing rights of Indigenous peoples, both as individuals and as nations. While Indigenous peoples are entitled to the same human rights as all peoples through existing international human rights instruments, UNDRIP’s 46 articles make an important case for recognizing that Indigenous peoples may need special protections to maintain their cultural identities.

The main themes of UNDRIP are the rights to self‐determination, the right to be recognized as distinct peoples, the rights to free, prior, and informed consent, and the right to be free from discrimination. Collectively, these themes assert the right of Indigenous peoples to decide what is best for their communities and to carry out those decisions in ways that are meaningful to their people, including through treaty relationships and the negotiation of new agreements. The Declaration includes protections for cultural rights such as preserving Indigenous languages, many of which are on the verge of being, or have already become, extinct.

A large hall with rows of desks and chairs facing a high wall emblazoned with the UN logo.

The United Nations General Assembly hall.

Photo: “UN General Assembly.” Patrick Gruban, CC BY-SA 2.0*

The Declaration took more than 20 years to negotiate. Several nations, including Canada, expressed concern that the protections would contradict national laws. At the time of the vote by the UN General Assembly in 2007, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – all countries with important colonial histories and violations against Indigenous peoples – voted against adopting the Declaration. Canada endorsed the document in November 2010 as an aspirational document or a set of goals. In April 2016, the Government of Canada announced its unqualified support for the Declaration, including fully supporting the right to self‐determination for Indigenous peoples.

In April 2017, Dr. Wilton Littlechild travelled to Geneva to speak about the concrete achievements and challenges remaining since the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Declaration. A member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, Dr. Littlechild is a Cree Chief, residential school survivor and lawyer. A member of the 1977 Indigenous delegation to the United Nations, he has devoted himself to the development of the Declaration and to the advancement of the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world. According to Dr. Littlechild, the Declaration gives Indigenous peoples a voice in the international arena and brings important perspectives to the United Nations General Assembly, among many other achievements. As he explained, "In our quest for recognition and justice, we actually contributed a lot into the UN family and humankind…It was Indigenous peoples who brought to the floor the need to recognize family, the need to recognize Indigenous law."

A man wearing an eagle feather headdress.

Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild at a UN event marking the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Photo: UN Photo/Kim Haughton, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although the adoption of this Declaration around the world does signal that much has been achieved, the true success of UNDRIP will lay in its implementation and in the way that governments will interpret its protections. The right to free, prior and informed consent on Indigenous lands and territories lays at the heart of the right to self‐determination, and could present a challenge for states already engaged in development and resource extraction on these lands, without consent. From my perspective as Curator of Indigenous content at the Museum, this means taking time to develop initiatives in a good way. Honouring relationships may ultimately mean suspending plans or projects, which for many governments may be the biggest challenge for implementing UNDRIP.

Cover of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

It remains to be seen how Canada will implement UNDRIP, and to what extent its principles can – or should be – reconciled with domestic law. As a Declaration, UNDRIP is non‐binding. For many, it is precisely this lack of teeth that makes it strong in principle but weak in application. Only time will tell the extent to which UNDRIP represents a watershed moment for Indigenous rights, both in Canada and internationally. When all Indigenous people can drink their own water, enjoy basic infrastructure in their communities, retain their people through economic opportunity, speak their own languages, raise their own children and live on their own land – it is then that UNDRIP will have done what its drafters intended. UNDRIP needs dreamers, but fulfilling its intentions also takes doers.

Read the Declaration