New Zealand backs UN declaration of indigenous rights

New Zealand on Monday endorsed the UN declaration on the rights of the world's 370 million indigenous peoples, a 2007 document enshrining their land, resource and human rights.

"In keeping to our strong commitment to human rights, and indigenous rights in particular, New Zealand now adds its support to the declaration both as an affirmation of fundamental rights and in its expression of new and widely supported aspirations," said Pita Sharples, New Zealand's minister of Maori affairs.

New Zealand had been one of only four countries to vote against the declaration -- along with Australia, Canada and the United States -- when it was adopted in September 2007 by the UN General Assembly.

Fully 143 countries voted in favor, and 11, including Russia and Colombia, abstained.

Sharples said New Zealand "acknowledges and understands the historic injustices suffered by Maori in relation to their land and resources and is committed to addressing these" through the established settlement process under the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi signed by the Maori and the British Crown.

He noted that many Maori groups have already benefited from the transfer of considerable land, forest and fisheries assets through negotiated treaty settlements.

However he conceded that "redress offered in treaty settlements is... constrained by the need to be fair to everyone and by what the country as a whole can afford to pay."

His announcement was immediately hailed by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which kicked off an 11-day session here to discuss the impact of development policies on native peoples' culture and identity.

"The Permanent Forum looks forward to continuing its engagement with the government of New Zealand in a spirit of cooperation in order to advance the rights of indigenous peoples in New Zealand and around the world," said Bolivia's Carlos Mamani Condori, the current forum chair.

Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a member of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy and the North American representative on the Permanent Forum, said Canada was also moving toward adopting the declaration and expressed hope that US President Barack Obama would keep his election campaign pledge to back the text as well.

Some 2,000 indigenous people representing UN member states, UN agencies and civil society are taking part in the session.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon opened the session by telling the indigenous community; "You are full and equal members of the United Nations family."

"Indigenous cultures, languages and ways of life are under constant threat from climate change, armed conflict, lack of educational opportunities and discrimination," he added.

"We need development that allows indigenous peoples, the UN system and all other partners to ensure that the vision behind the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples becomes a reality for all," Ban said.
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