It took three years to do it, but finally today President Obama announced that the United States will support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document instituted in 2007 and signed by 143 nations but not the US.
“The aspirations it affirms, including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of native peoples are ones we must always seek to fulfill,” Obama said of the Declaration. “But I want to be clear, what matters far more than words, what matters far more than any resolutions or any declaration, actions to match those words,” he said.
“Recognizing that no statement can undo the damage that was done, what it can do is help reaffirm the principles that should guide our future,” the President told the leaders of the America’s 565 recognized Native American tribes gathered for Obama’s 2nd White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Dept of Interior . “It’s only by heeding the lessons of our history that we can move forward,” Obama said, to huge cheers from tribal representatives.
Government officials say the US had objected to the UN declaration over wording about land claims and ambiguities in the language that could have conflicted with US law. The Bush administration never pursued it but in April the Obama administration signaled that they would review the language in the declaration. It was initially signed by 143 countries with US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand withholding support. Since then all but the US had signed on.
The US about-face came after officials determined that the language would, in fact, not conflict with US law and the complex relationship between national, state and tribal governments. Officials said they waited until a formal comment period for soliciting tribal input had expired before making the move to support the declaration.
“We think it is an important and meaningful change in US position,” said State Department spokesman PJ Crowley. “Of course, as with any international declaration we have certain reservations which we will voice reflecting our own domestic and constitutional interest. The president thinks it’s the right thing to do… Even though it is legally non-binding we think it carries considerable moral and political force.”
Also at the conference Obama touted his administrations other accomplishments in dealing with Indian Country, including recently settling a land trust class action lawsuit with a $3.4 billion compensation fund and, last October, settling a $760 million case with Indian farmers.
-Jon Garcia and Kirit Radia