Advisory letter 08: The draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples

February 23, 2006 - nr.8
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Advice request
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Government reactions

Mr F. Korthals Altes

Chairman of the Advisory Council

on International Affairs

Postbus 20061

2500 EB Den Haag


                                                                                                          The Hague

                                                                                                          10 November 2004


Dear Mr Korthals Altes,


Together with the Minister for Development Cooperation, I would like to thank you for your advisory letter entitled ‘The Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. From Deadlock to Breakthrough? I agree with your main conclusion that it is vital to break the deadlock in the negotiations on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Over the past ten years, the Dutch government has been actively involved in the negotiations on the Draft Declaration, and has been working towards a satisfactory outcome of the negotiations since it assumed the EU presidency on 1 July.


In my response to your advisory letter, I will briefly discuss the Netherlands’ efforts in the negotiations and the international debate on the Draft Declaration.


Dutch efforts

In 1995, the UN Commission on Human Rights set up a Working Group to prepare a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to be adopted by the UN General Assembly before the end of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People in December 2004.


As holder of the EU presidency since 1 July 2004, the Netherlands has been closely involved in the negotiations within the Working Group. As a ‘concerned third party’, the Netherlands has submitted proposals through the channels that you describe in your advisory letter. It should be pointed out, however, that no agreement has been reached within the EU on the content of the Draft Declaration. Despite many efforts and concrete proposals on matters such as, in particular, whether to grant collective human rights to indigenous people and the right to self-determination and self-identification, there is still dissent on these fundamental issues.

The Working Group recently met in Geneva, from 13 to 24 September. The meeting was conducted in a constructive atmosphere, but due to the differences of opinion mentioned above, it did not lead to concrete results. Before the end of the mandate, the Working Group will meet again for a week in late November.


The Dutch government is concerned about the situation of some 300 million indigenous people around the world. For this reason, Dutch policy focuses not only on cooperating actively within the Working Group, but also on working to produce real improvements in the living conditions of indigenous people. The Dutch government has provided financial assistance to indigenous people for years, partly through large sums paid out to the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations and the Netherlands Centre for Indigenous Peoples, a Dutch NGO that protects the interests of indigenous people. This assistance helps to improve the quality of national legal remedies for indigenous people – and their access to such remedies – and to strengthen the management of their lands and natural resources.


The Dutch government pays a great deal of attention to indigenous people as regards biodiversity and forests. The destruction of biodiversity and forests has a huge impact on the well-being of indigenous people and often exacerbates poverty. The Convention on Biological Diversity devotes special attention to indigenous people, and the Netherlands supports the participation of indigenous people in its various meetings. The Netherlands is also involved in the preservation of indigenous and traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights over that knowledge.


In two Council Resolutions, in 1998 and 2002, the European Union stressed that it attaches great importance to the social, economic and cultural development of indigenous people and their full participation in society. The European Commission supports projects that advance these goals. This year, the European Commission’s Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights will again appeal to NGOs to submit project proposals to promote the participation of indigenous people in consultations within the UN and in international and regional organisations.


International debate

The debate on the Draft Declaration focuses on whether or not to grant collective rights to indigenous people. In many countries, including the Netherlands and most of the EU member states, individual rights come first, and there is a reluctance to grant collective rights to indigenous people. The only collective right which indigenous people can actually claim is the right to self-determination, as laid down in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.


Some EU member states, particularly the Nordic countries, take the view that indigenous people should indeed be granted collective rights. These countries have submitted an alternative text for the Draft Declaration, in which these rights are laid down.


In recent years, the Netherlands has acted as a mediator and made countless attempts to bridge the differences. For example, it has proposed wording the chapeau in a way that could lead a number of countries to adopt a more flexible position on other points of the Draft Declaration. The EU has an important role in efforts to reach a common understanding in the Working Group. As holder of the EU presidency, the Netherlands is endeavouring to find practical solutions to the outstanding differences of opinion.


The active involvement of the Netherlands at the last meeting did not produce any results. The negotiations revealed great, perhaps irreconcilable, differences of opinion on the Draft Declaration. In ten years, hardly any progress has been made in the negotiations. At the meeting in November, the Dutch presidency will make one final attempt to bring the negotiations to a satisfactory conclusion, partly by drawing up an EU declaration for this meeting. The approaching end of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People could perhaps be used as a lever.


The question arises of whether it is possible to reach agreement on the Draft Declaration at all. The Netherlands has done everything that could be reasonably expected. I therefore see little point in extending the Working Group’s mandate, unless there are concrete signs in November that the differences can be bridged and the negotiations will lead to a result in the short term.


I am forwarding a copy of this letter to the Presidents of the Senate and House of Representatives.


Yours sincerely,




Bernard Bot


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