Dear Dr Moses,
Thank you for your letter of 15 December 2004 to the Prime Minister about the UN draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people. The Letter and attachments were passed to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and I have been asked to reply. I apologise that the Christmas break has delayed our response.
You are clearly already familiar with aspects of UK's position. However it may be helpful if I set this out again. The UK is concerned that many indigenous people do not enjoy their full human rights, and is committed to helping improve this situation. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has funded a number of projects to support and promote the rights of indigenous people. For example, we have financed a Minority Rights Group project to help minority and indigenous groups participate effectively at the UN. The Department for International Development works in support of indigenous people. In particular, it provides support to the Inter-American Development Bank's Indigenous Strategy and funds programmes in Latin America that target indigenous groups. The UK is also a major contributor to the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), a European Commission fund which provides over € 6 million per annum for project work with indigenous communities that promotes their views and voices, helps exchange information and improves communication.
As you know, we have been actively involved in negotiations on the proposed UN "Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples". We believe that this Declaration could be an important tool to help recognise and protect the rights of indigenous people. However, a number of states within the UN Working Group, including the UK, have each year reiterated various concerns with the original draft. These include the fact that the Declaration seeks to create new collective human rights, specific to indigenous people.
Human rights are universal and equal to all individuals. As equality is one of the fundamental principles underpinning human rights, we do not accept that some groups in society should benefit from human rights that are not available to others. We believe that there are real dangers in this approach, which could give abusive governments a ready excuse to pick and choose which human rights they respect for certain groups. The notion of rights being held only collectively can also leave individuals within the groups vulnerable and without protection. The UK has a long-held position that, with the exception of the right of self-determination (Common Article 1 of the two International Covenants on Human Rights), we do not accept the concept of collective human rights in international law.
Of course certain rights belonging to individuals can often be exercised collectively, in community with others. Examples are freedom of association, freedom of religion or a collective title to property.
The UK recognises that the governments of many states with indigenous populations have granted them various collective rights at the national level in their constitutions, national laws and agreements. The UK has no objection to this welcome fact being reflected in the Declaration. But it is important that these rights bestowed nationally remain distinct from individual human rights, enjoyed by indigenous people and all others, which are founded in international law and which provide proper protection to the individual.
We believe that these concerns can be accommodated in a strong and meaningful Declaration. That is why we continue to participate fully in negotiations. The key is that indigenous people should be able to realise their rights and participate effectively in decision-making, particularly on issues concerning land and resources. We want to continue to work with other governments and the representatives of indigenous people to agree a Declaration which helps indigenous people enjoy their rights, and also underpins the universality of human rights.
I hope this is helpful.