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Call for indigenous health rights

26th November 2007

Health experts who published a series of reports on the indigenous peoples of the world have called on governments to act fast to ensure their rights to appropriate healthcare are protected under a recent UN Declaration.

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The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted in September by 143 votes to four against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States), with 11 abstentions.

While the text is non-binding on governments, it calls on them to protect the rights of indigenous peoples to continue using traditional medicine, their access to the resources they need for their well-being, including vital plants or landscapes.

Around 370 million indigenous people are estimated to be living worldwide. In a letter to The Lancet, Carolyn Stephens, John Porter, Clive Nettleton and Ruth Willis, who co-authored articles on indigenous healthcare last year, called on medical professionals and health experts worldwide to take note of some specific articles in the Declaration.

"They reflect some of the grave failures of our scientific and medical past where, as a profession, we too often disregarded the rights of indigenous peoples through unethical studies, inappropriate medical approaches, and abuse of intellectual property rights," they wrote.

"It is just over a year since The Lancet released a Series on the health of indigenous peoples worldwide. With colleagues around the world, we documented the marginalisation, extreme poor health, and lack of human rights experienced by indigenous peoples internationally."

Article 24 of the Declaration states that indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals, and minerals.

Indigenous individuals also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services, it says.

It also asserts that "indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States shall take the necessary steps with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of this right."

Article 31, meanwhile, deals with the right to maintain, control, protect, and develop the cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions of indigenous peoples.

This would include any manifestations of their sciences, technologies, and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games, and visual and performing arts.

Indigenous peoples also had the right to maintain, control, protect, and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions, the Declaration said, and called on states to take "effective measures" to recognise and protect the exercise of these rights.

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