U.S. will sign UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

On December 16, 2010, President Obama announced that the United States will sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration was adopted by the UN in September 2007, with only Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States voting against it.

Among many other rights, the Declaration affirms that indigenous people are entitled to the human right to health:

Article 24, Section 2: Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States shall take the necessary steps with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of this right.

Here is an excerpt from the president’s speech at the White House Tribal Nations Conference today:

“Another important part of our strategy is health care.  We know that Native Americans die of illnesses like diabetes, pneumonia, flu – even tuberculosis – at far higher rates than the rest of the population.  Make no mistake:  These disparities represent an ongoing tragedy.  They’re cutting lives short, causing untold pain and hardship for Native American families.  And closing these gaps is not just a question of policy, it’s a question of our values – it’s a test of who we are as a nation.”

Here is an excerpt from the U.S. announcement:

“Addressing Health Care Gaps: The Obama Administration understands the priority tribal leaders place on improving the delivery of health care services in their communities, as well as the significance of related provisions in the Declaration. The Administration has responded, as evidenced by the 13% increase in funding for the Indian Health Service (IHS) in FY 2010 and the 9% additional increase for IHS proposed in the President’s FY 2011 Budget Request. These increases are on top of $500 million provided to the IHS under the Recovery Act. 10. After President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March, making permanent the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, IHS initiated consultations with tribal leaders to implement the Act and determine their priorities. Tribes identified long-term care, behavior health, and diabetes/dialysis as their primary concerns. IHS held a meeting on Long Term Care in Indian Country on November 1-2, 2010 to begin the conversation about implementation priorities with tribes. IHS is also continuing the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, a Congressionally-approved grant program now in its thirteenth year, which has resulted in increased control of diabetes in indigenous communities and decreasing rates of end stage renal disease. Related demonstration projects have also shown significant promise.”

The government’s announcement received a cautious welcome by indigenous groups, who pointed to limitations the United States placed on its support for the Declaration. From a press release by the International Indian Treaty Council: 

The statement of U.S. support "contains a number of qualifications which call into serious question the US government’s intention to fully recognize and implement many of the key rights contained in the Declaration. Several references are made to implementation of rights in accordance with existing Federal Laws and policies. Of particular concern is the statement that the US plans to recognize ‘a new and distinct international concept of self–determination specific to indigenous peoples… different from the existing right of self-determination in international law.’ This interpretation by the US has no basis in the actual text of the Declaration or the principles of international human rights standards which uphold non-discrimination and equal rights. In Article 3, the Declaration defines Self-determination for Indigenous Peoples consistent with the language affirming this right for “All Peoples” in international law. The US statement also limits the US interpretation of the right to Free Prior and Informed Consent contained in many provisions of the Declaration to “consultation,” a much more limited and diminished standard."