The Grand Council of the Crees

Ted Moses Speaks to the World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna

Statement by Ambassador Ted Moses on behalf of the indigenous peoples of the North American Region to the World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, June 14-25, 1993

Posted: 1993-06-00

Mr. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali, Mr. President, Mr. Assistant Secretary-General Fall, Dr. Daes, Chairman/Rapporteur of the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, Distinguished delegates, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and delegates of the nations of indigenous peoples.Mr. President, the indigenous peoples of North America have asked me to convey to this World Conference a most fair, modest, and reasonable request: The indigenous peoples ask to be accorded the same rights which the United Nations accords to the other peoples of the world. We ask for no more and no less than this.We ask simply that the United Nations respect its own instruments, its own standards, and its own principles. We ask that it apply these standards universally and indivisibly, that it accord all peoples the same universally recognized rights, that it act without prejudice, and without discrimination based on race, religion, or colour.Mr. President, in opening this conference, you reminded us of some concepts that should never be forgotten. You told us first that basic rights are not granted or given. You said that they are attributes of peoples, that they are in the essential nature of humankind, and cannot be taken away.You reminded us also why the United Nations was established. Being here in Vienna, and observing the issues put before us by delegations and NGOs alike, we can never forget that States can, for their own purposes, cause unjust laws to be enacted. We know that States can commit terrible crimes against humanity. We know that in order to have a higher universal standard we must turn to the world community, and that in matters of human rights we owe our highest allegiance not to the State, but to the international community.Governments sometimes confuse expedience with justice, and must be reminded of their higher obligations to the international community. Since first contact, the indigenous peoples of North America have been victims of abuse from State authority, both arbitrary and State sanctioned. Most think that this is old history. They do not know that we continue to be victimized, dispossessed of our lands and resources, and reduced to poverty and despair. We live within countries considered by the world community to be progressive and nurturing of human rights and equality, but our problems are common with those of indigenous peoples worldwide.There is nothing abstract or technical, therefore, in the appeal of indigenous peoples for respect of international human rights standards. 500 years of history attests to our need for the protection of international law. 500 years is ample time to prove that the interests and activities of States have often served to destroy our collective identities, to suppress our cultures, languages, and religions and to take away our lands and resources. We appeal for the application of international human rights standards because we wish to survive as peoples. Do not be deceived, even in North America it is urgent that existing international standards be fully respected.This must be understood. Our history in North America consists in the forced imposition of foreign laws, customs, and religions by European States, the denial of our right to govern ourselves, assimilation, the dispossession of our lands and resources, failure to respect sacred treaty commitments, and ultimately in the denial of our means of livelihood and subsistence.When the Secretary General launched the International Year, he noted that "unity through diversity is the only true and enduring unity". Within the many societies that comprise the more than 300 million indigenous peoples of the world, there are fundamental commonalties: Self-determination, territorial and environmental integrity, and cultural identity are inseparably connected. Within our cultures and societies, individual rights exist within the collectivity. It is from the common goals, understandings, and our relationship and commitment to the earth and to each other that the rights and responsibilities of the individual flow. To deny us the recognition of our collective rights severs each individual from the comfort and protection of his or her collective identity and ultimately from his or her identity as an individual human being.The International Covenants state that "all peoples" have the right of self-determination. "By virtue" of this right, they declare that all peoples have the right to enjoy and benefit from their own resources. The Covenants declare unequivocally that a people may not be denied their own means of subsistence.These International Covenants were drafted to protect peoples, all peoples without exception. There is no provision whereby these protections may be applied selectively to certain peoples and denied to other peoples. The Covenants are explicit. They apply to "all peoples". The Universal Declaration is also explicit; international human rights protections are to apply universally and indivisibly.Why should I be standing here explaining these most basic principles to members of the United Nations at a World Conference on Human Rights? I was taught that "ALL RIGHTS BELONG TO ALL PEOPLES".What will the world think, when they hear that the human rights which apply universally, somehow they do not apply in the same way to the world's indigenous peoples? How will you explain this? I think the world will find it very difficult to accept that a World Conference on Human Rights would single out certain peoples and deny certain of their universally acclaimed human rights. Yet that is exactly what some States wish to do here, even now as principles are being drafted at this World Conference.I will not stand here quietly and condone this injustice.All peoples have the right of self-determination. The States that object to the recognition of this right, seek to circumvent the application of international law to indigenous peoples in order to avoid the obvious and undeniable conclusions that flow from international standards. In order to avoid the implications of existing international law, they have hit upon a simple strategy: They have decided that our rights as peoples will not exist if they simply avoid referring to us as "peoples".They have called us "populations", "communities", "groups", "societies", persons, "ethnic minorities"; now they have decided to call us "people", in the singular. In short, they will use any name they can think of, as long as it is not "peoples" with an "s". They are willing to turn universality on its head to avoid recognizing our right of self-determination. They will call us anything but what we are--PEOPLES.Dr. Erica-Irene Daes and other experts have made it manifestly clear that indigenous peoples are "peoples" in every legal, scientific, and historical sense, and that it is absurd to deny this basic fact simply in order to avoid its obvious implications in international law.Mr. President, the indigenous peoples participating in this historic process have made every effort to explain their demands, their fears, and concerns, and to allay the fears and concerns of States.At this final conference, however, we are still facing a "closed circle" of States who remain unmoved and unwilling to recognize our most basic rights. We have once again clearly articulated our position to this Conference through formal submissions and discussions which you have seen. I believe it is essential:1. That this World Conference on Human Rights confirm forthrightly that indigenous peoples are "subjects of international law", who as indigenous peoples have exactly the same rights and recognitions as all other peoples. That the collective rights of self-determination, self-government and autonomy are universal and indivisible.2. That at the conclusion of the International Year of the World's indigenous Peoples, an International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples be proclaimed in order to carry on the work of the United Nations which has only just begun.3. That after the completing consideration of the draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples should be elevated and restructured as a permanent "expert committee" as Dr. Daes has just recommended. We fully support her view that structural changes must be made at the United Nations to facilitate work on one of the great outstanding human rights issues of the 21st Century--the plight of the world's indigenous peoples.4. That within the framework of structural changes the United Nations appoint a High Commissioner for Indigenous Peoples to provide immediate and urgent response to critical situations, and; that the Commission on Human Rights place "Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples" on its permanent agenda as an item in its own right.5. That the United Nations move to implement the conclusions and recommendations of two important meetings of experts: "The effect of racism and racial discrimination on social and economic relations between indigenous peoples and States", (E/CN.4/1989/22 and HR/PUB/89/5) and the "Experience of countries in the operation of schemes of internal self-government for indigenous peoples." (E/CN.4/1992/42)6. That specific provisions be made to permit wider access to the United Nations system for all indigenous peoples.


Mr. President, the eyes of the world are upon us. Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Laureate, and our dear and beloved friend, has insisted that we move beyond symbolism. Terrible abuses are taking place. Concrete responses and solutions are urgently required.

The entire credibility of the international community is in your hands. You will be judged harshly if you compromise the essential principles of universality and indivisibility in order to satisfy the special political interests of individual States. Thank you.