Pacific Island Delegates at International Conference Identify Endorsement and Implementation of UNDRIP as Advocacy Priority
By Holly Jonas (CCRI Regional Resource Person and Legal Team Coordinator) with Fiu Mata’ese Elisara, Dr. Sapa Saifaleupolu, Dr. Samson Viulu, Aydah Gwaena Vahia and James Meimana
Four delegates from Samoa and the Solomon Islands made the long journey to Durban, South Africa, to join dozens of other Indigenous and civil society representatives at the “Fostering Community Conservation” conference from 31 August to 4 September 2015. Representing Samoa’s O Le Siosiomaga Society Inc. (OLSSI) and the Network of Indigenous Peoples – Solomons (NIPS), they presented the preliminary findings of their respective national processes as part of the Community Conservation Resilience Initiative (CCRI). In both countries, Indigenous peoples have unique cultural protocols for engaging with chiefs and elders and customary practices such as tabu sites to restrict harvesting of land or sea resources for certain periods of time. However, they also face a number of challenges such as over-harvesting of mangroves, declining fish populations and relocation due to sea level rise, all of which also have gendered implications.
In addition to sharing experiences and lessons learned to date with such issues, during one of the conference’s breakout group sessions, the Pacific Island delegates discussed their state governments’ positions in relation to one of the most important international instruments for Indigenous peoples’ rights.
The 2007 adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is widely recognized as a watershed moment in the global Indigenous rights movement. Although it is a non-binding instrument, it still has legal and political implications under the UN Charter as a resolution of the General Assembly. Furthermore, some of its provisions reflect well-established principles of customary international law and several others embody provisions of legally binding human rights treaties.
The only four states that originally voted against UNDRIP (Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia) eventually endorsed it. Eleven states, including Samoa, abstained from the 2007 vote, and only 1 Pacific Island country (Federated States of Micronesia) voted in favour; 10 other Pacific Island countries were absent. Whereas some commentators contend that the Pacific Island countries were “ambivalent, apathetic or opposed” to UNDRIP at the time of the vote, there are also anecdotal accounts that they were absent due to political pressure from New Zealand and Australia. Samoa and Micronesia have since endorsed the Declaration, but the other Pacific Island countries have remained silent.
Pacific Island countries’ official stances on UNDRIP have been influenced by both regional and domestic factors, including the dominant presence of New Zealand and Australia, their political status as independent states versus territories of other states (e.g. USA), and the fact that Indigenous peoples comprise the vast majority of their populations, rendering the standard characterisation of ‘indigenous’ as ‘minority’ inapplicable.
However, Indigenous peoples’ networks in the Pacific are gaining strength and increasingly calling for the endorsement of UNDRIP by state governments which have yet to do so. The national partners of the CCRI in the Pacific – OLSSI in Samoa and NIPS in the Solomon Islands – plan to advocate for the latter country to endorse UNDRIP and to support the full and effective implementation of the declaration in both countries. Their national legal systems (vestiges of the respective colonial administrations) varyingly conflict with and/or undermine customary legal systems and enable the expansion of mainstream industrial activities such as logging in indigenous peoples’ territories. Although state-level recognition of UNDRIP alone will not be a silver bullet, OLSSI and NIPS believe it will provide further impetus to the push to enshrine the fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples’ to self-determination and self-governance in domestic legislation.
 Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
 Teaiwa, Teresia (no date). “NZ, UNDRIP, and the Pacific: Counter-intuitive Speculations”, available online at: http://posttreatysettlements.org.nz/nz-undrip-and-the-pacific-counter-intuitive-speculations/.
 See, for example: the Nuku Alofa Declaration of a 2009 gathering of people from 8 countries in the Pacific and Oceania, which called for “all nations in the Pacific” to endorse UNDRIP: http://uriohau.blogspot.my/2009/10/nuku-alofa-declaration.html; and a guest article by OLSSI’s Executive Director, Fiu Mata’ese Elisara: https://thereddsite.wordpress.com/2009/09/16/guest-article-pacific-comments-on-redd/.