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    The Initiative on Indigenous Rights

About the Initiative:

On September 13th, 2007 after more than twenty-five years of consultation, discussion, and debate the UN adopted General Assembly Resolution 61/295 - the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A Unique Moment:

The modern human rights paradigm began in 1948 with the U.N. adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). From this simple document of thirty articles, which had no force in law, the entire human rights apparatus - the UN Human Rights Council, more than a dozen binding U.N. conventions (treaties), regional human rights bodies like the European Court, Commission, and Convention on Human Rights, the American Court, Commission, and Convention on Human Rights, treaty bodies, U.N. Special Rapporteurs, national human rights entities, the elaboration of more than a hundred new national constitutions, and the creation of thousands of NGOs devoted to human rights - has emerged in just sixty years.

With the adoption of this long overdue Declaration, there is a unique opportunity to educate, promote, and celebrate Native American rights in the U.S.

Given the complicated and conflicting histories of US-Tribal relations, American Indians/Alaskan Natives are one of the most oppressed, marginalized, and exploited groups in the U.S. There is a critical need for U.S. tribes to understand how this declaration may impact them either as individual members or as a collective, because there has been little effort to connect rights in Indian Country with the international human rights paradigm. This both reflects a pattern in the U.S. itself as well as the complicated challenges of the political and legal relationship Tribes have provided by the Constitution of the United States, treaties, courts decision, and their own sovereignty.

The Goals of the Initiative:

The Initiative on Indigenous Rights is under the Faculty Supervision of Harvard Kennedy School Professor Joe Kalt, Co-Director Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. In its first year, the Initiative will:

  • Convene a Faculty Steering Committee from Native Americans on the faculty and fellows from all the schools across Harvard University.

  • Form a Native American Advisory Committee from across the nation to provide direction and definition to the Initiative.

  • Enter into a dialogue with Native American and indigenous leaders who have been involved in the twenty-five year process of articulating the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People to gain an 'indigenous' perspective on their motivations and aspirations for this document.

  • From that understanding then create educational materials that would be helpful to tribal leaders, educators, and community activists who would like to use the Declaration to advance human rights in Native American communities in the United States.

  • Host meetings at the Harvard Kennedy School, which could help advance human rights agendas among Native American and indigenous peoples.



The idea originated in 1982 as result of a study by Special Rapporteur José R. Martínez Cobo on the problem of discrimination faced by indigenous peoples, which was commissioned by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The Working Group began working on a draft of the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People in 1985 and submitted a final version in 1993, which was then referred to the Human Rights Commission. The Human Rights Commission appointed its own Working Group and progress was slow because of certain states' concerns regarding some key provisions of the Declaration, such as indigenous peoples' right to self-determination and the control over natural resources existing on indigenous peoples' traditional lands. The Human Rights Council, the successor to the Human Rights Committee, passed the Declaration in June 2006 and referred it to the General Assembly.

The 2007 vote at the General Assembly was 143 countries in favor, 4 against, and 11 abstaining. The four countries that rejected the Declaration - the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - were key to its legitimacy because of their important indigenous populations. This posed a significant problem, therefore, for moving the work forward. The lack of participation by these four, especially the United States, had been cited as reasoning for participating countries to stall progress in their own domestic policy revisions.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand all announced their intentions to sign the Declaration during the March 2010 UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City.

President Obama sent a 20-person delegation to the 2010 UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), including Ambassador Susan Rice, who announced the United States' change of position from “Reject” to “Review.” On December 17, 2010, at The Second Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama announced his intention to sign the UN DRIP. The general consensus is that this development will not only encourage progress in the work to provide human rights to Indigenous Peoples in America, but also in the pursuit of indigenous human rights worldwide.

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