Gov’t Asked to Adopt UN Declaration on IP Rights

As tribes denounce killings of 72 indigenous peoples

What could be the reasons for the Philippine government’s refusal to vote for the adoption of the draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples last June?


In an August 3 letter addressed to Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) questioned two provisions of the UN’s draft declaration on indigenous peoples’ rights.

On the right to self-determination (Art. 3), the OSG said that there is a need to consider “the peculiar crisis that the Philippines is facing within its own territory,” referring to attempts by rebel forces in Mindanao to separate the territory and form an independent Muslim state.

“There is a strong possibility that the provision…could be subjected to untrammeled interpretations by secessionist groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which, since the enactment of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), has been clamoring for recognition as indigenous peoples,” the letter read.

It then proposed the article to read, “Nothing in this Declaration shall be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and Independent States…”

At the same time, the OSG clarified that it does not intend to “dilute or redefine the said rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination.”

The OSG also questioned Art. 26 which seeks the recognition of the indigenous peoples’ right “to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources they possess by reason of traditional ownership.”

Abstention due to OSG opinion

Sec. 57 of the IPRA provided that indigenous peoples, “shall have priority rights in the harvesting, extraction, development or exploitation of any natural resources within ancestral domains.” The OSG said that this provision “does not speak of ownership of natural resources,” but merely “priority rights.”

“It is strongly recommended that the right of ownership be limited only to lands and domains,” the letter further stated.

Chairman Janette Cansing Serrano of the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) noted that the OSG’s legal opinion on September 12, 2002 became the basis of the government’s abstention during the high-level session of the UN.

Other members of the Philippine mission to New York and Geneva, were caught by surprise when they learned of the government’s stand.

During the session UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, the Philippine mission clearly expressed support to the declaration. However, the government later held back during the Geneva high-level session of the UN’s Human Rights Council on June 22

“The government abstained based on the September 2002 opinion of the OSG, which had undergone several [revisions],” Serrano said. NCIP was not been furnished a copy of the document even if it worked hard for the adoption of the declaration. “The Philippine mission should have been consistent with foreign policies. We wonder why they changed it based on the 2002 legal opinion of OSG. When we discovered it, it was too late.”

Serrano vowed to work for the adoption of the declaration at the 61st UN General Assembly in October.

OSG rebuked

“We find it ironic that the Philippine government always crows about how it fully supports indigenous peoples’ rights as evidenced by the IPRA,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the head of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

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