In a move that indigenous rights magazine Cultural Survival calls a “victory for indigenous people,” the General Assembly adopted the U.N. Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples on September 13, with only 4 countries – you can most likely guess which ones – casting against the document.

An e-mail from Cultural Survival ( reads:

The declaration spells out the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples including their right to their traditional lands and resources; their right to give their free, prior, and informed consent before governments take actions that negatively affect them; their right to be free from genocide and forced relocation; and their rights to their languages, cultures and spiritual beliefs. At long last the world’s native peoples have a valuable tool for regaining some of the cultural and physical ground they have lost over the past 500 years.

According to the official U.N. website:

The General Assembly today adopted a landmark declaration outlining the rights of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people and outlawing discrimination against them – a move that followed more than two decades of debate.

Ambassador John McNee of Canada said his country was disappointed to have to vote against the Declaration, but it had “significant concerns” about the language in the document.

The provisions on lands, territories and resources “are overly broad, unclear and capable of a wide variety of interpretations” and could put into question matters that have been settled by treaty, he said. source:

In addition to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States voted against the declaration. These countries have long been against indigenous activists and are among the main target countries of the activists who started the idea of the declaration. In my own city of Denver, the Police Department has in the past profiled indigenous activists as “terrorists.”

I think the Internet has contributed to the developing solidarity of the struggles of indigenous people around the world. For little or no cost they are able to communicate, share their problems and ask for advice.

Indeed, this is a great success for indigenous people and their long activism. But an old wound is opened in the declaration that nobody talks about. It’s a wound that dates back to 1948 and is actually the essential threat to indigenous peoples’ survival.

My reference is to the dissaperance of the term “cultural genocide” from the final draft of the declaration (

Although earlier drafts for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples included the phrase “cultural genocide” ( the new version has “cultural genocide” changed into “destruction of their [indigenous peoples’] culture.”

History repeats itself? Article III of a Secretariat draft for the United Nations Genocide convention originally defined genocide also as “[d]estroying or preventing the use of libraries, museums, schools, historical monuments, places of worship or other cultural institutions and objects of the group.” But opposition by several states, writes Ana Filipa Vrdoljak, including the argument that “the proposed Genocide Convention would become a tool of political propaganda aimed at their assimilation policies to ‘civilise’ indigenous inhabitants,” excluded cultural elements from the final convention draft that was adopted in 1948.

Interestingly enough, the exclusion of cultural genocide was fundamentally against the idea behind defining genocide.

When in 1933 Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin first formulated the idea of punishing the crime of the crimes – what he later named genocide – he argued that barbarity (“the premeditated destruction of national, racial, religious and social collectivities”) and vandalism (“destruction of works of art and culture, being the expression of the particular genius of these collectivities”) were of “international danger.”

The crime of “vandalism” was not separate from “barbarity,” but was also “an attack targeting a collectivity.” In 1947 Lemkin clarified that “genocide” is not a synonym for “mass murder” because the latter “does not convey the specific losses to civilization in the form of cultural contributions.”

But even with kicking out “cultural genocide” from the declaration the U.S. was not satisfied enough to vote for the document. Perhaps the declaration of independence, that calls the entire indigenous people ‘savages,’ is truly so deemed in our collective conscience that we Americans are blind toward the oppression of the true owners of this land.

And what made me sick today in George W. Bush’s speech on Iraq was the use of the term “civilized nation.” Although I am sure he didn’t mean to do that, but pronouncing that phrase on the same day of voting against the Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples was quite sinister.

p.s. although Armenia as a nation-state is not traditionally considered “indigenous,” I see the declaration as an indirect victory for Armenia as well given its aboriginal place in history and geography