US Last Nation to Sign United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

President Obama announced Thursday that the United States will be signing the United Nations Indigenous Rights Declaration. The Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007 in spite of lack of support from the United States due to concerns that it conflicted with state and national laws. The Declaration recognizes basic rights of indigenous peoples across the world, with three of its articles giving special attention to indigenous language rights.

The president made the announcement that the US would be signing the declaration at the second annual White House Tribal Nations Conference. Addressing the crowd, which included representatives from over five hundred tribes, Obama said of the declaration “The aspirations it affirms, including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of native peoples are ones we must always seek to fulfill. But I want to be clear, what matters far more than words, what matters far more than any resolutions or any declaration, are actions to match those words. 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.”

While the Declaration is not legally binding, it has been lauded as a significant change in the direction of US policy. It comes on the heels of several other recent achievements including the settlement of a land trust class action lawsuit that provided a $3.4 billion compensation fund for American Indian litigants and the settlement of a case brought by American Indian farmers for $760 million.

Three of the articles of the declaration include special mention of language rights. Article 13 deals with the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit native languages to future generations, Article 14 addresses the right of indigenous peoples to access to education in their own languages and Article 16 involves the right to establish media in native languages. To see the UN Indigenous Rights Declaration in its entirety click here.

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