Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The United Nations and Rights of Indigenous Peoples

I have never been a big fan of the United Nations, primarily because of its track record and its non-binding status for affecting change. I know that it does a lot of positive things, but from my basic understanding of how it works, it seems to be more of a puppet organization for the U.S. and other nations as they manipulate markets, resources, and money around the world for their betterment. Personally, I have been more of a fan of Sol Tax and his arguments for Action/Applied Anthropology when it comes to affecting change in the world. This is one of the purposes behind this blog. The real change in how we work with indigenous peoples will come from my generation and the next. But this post is not a rant against the United Nations or the current state of the world (that would be an endless diatribe). Instead, let us look at what the United Nations are currently doing concerning Indigenous peoples.

Currently the United Nations is working on a draft proposal, that if eventually adopted, would declare the United Nations' stance on the rights of Indigenous peoples. Sounds great in theory, but how is it working out on paper? Well, here is a "non-paper" that outlines some concerns with the current working text of the declaration. This "non-paper", sent to my by an anonymous source, apparently was crafted by seven governments and submitted to the representative of the President of the General Assembly: Australia, Canada, Colombia, Guyana, New Zealand, the Russian Federation, and Suriname. These countries all have fairly decent indigenous populations, as well as currently being on the upswing of economic and resource development. As such, the "concerns" outlined below are the standard political, power-based double-talk of governments that we have come to expect from the U.N. and other Nation-State organizations. I've gone through and analyzed a couple below, highlighted in a different text color:


United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Summary of Key Areas of Concern

The General Assembly agreed to further consultations on the Draft Declaration to give the international community (can I comment on this Draft, and if so, will it be considered or just ignored?) the opportunity to try to adopt a Declaration that all countries could support as a genuine standard of achievement to live up to. The President of the General Assembly has recently appointed the Permanent Representative of the Philippines, H.E. Mr. Hilario G. Davide, Jr., to facilitate an open and inclusive process of consultations to reach the broadest possible agreement on the Declaration, taking into account the views of all parties (What parties are allowed to play in this game? How can indigenous peoples play? Do they have to have bank accounts and be able to afford plane trips to D.C. to be part of the discussion?).
In this context, this non-paper is the result of informal and on-going consultations between a significant number of States with indigenous populations, and summarizes their key areas of concern (Read carefully, these are the concerns of States, not Indigenous peoples. So of course the States are going to be critical of the declaration, it would theoretically hamper their potential economic growth and resource exploitation possibilities) with a view to supporting the objective of reaching agreement within the 61st Session of the General Assembly. These areas of concern are not necessarily shared by all States with concerns about the text. Amendments to the current text of the Draft Declaration will be required in order to secure support for adoption.

Self-determination, self-government and indigenous institutions:
The current text could be misconstrued so as to threaten the political unity, territorial integrity and stability of States, and confer a right of succession upon indigenous peoples. Provisions dealing with the need to achieve harmony with other levels of government are insufficiently developed. Of course, giving Indigenous peoples' their rights, granting them access to land and resources, or even acknowledging that they have rights could "threaten" the political unity of the State. But is not that the purpose of this declaration in general?

Lands, Territories and Resources:
The text on lands, territories and resources is broad, imprecise, and not capable of being implemented, and asserts rights of ownership to all lands, territories and resources, whether owned currently or previously occupied - wherever there is a traditional connection. For many States, this might encompass all of the lands, territories and resources of the State, including those considered a national common good. Again, is this not the implied definition in "indigenous"? Indigenous peoples, by the very definition, currently or previously occupied lands, territories, and resources prior to their removal by the State or some other colonial process.

Redress and Restitution:
The text on redress and restitution is broad, and asserts that States should provide redress for property taken without free, prior and informed consent. The text could be interpreted as promoting the re-opening of settlements already reached between States and indigenous peoples and does not take adequate account of the different situations facing indigenous peoples and States. Well, I don't know if the text would promote the re-opening of old settlements. It would force states to deal with their continuing colonial process. Even in the United States, where American Indian tribes signed treaties over a hundred years ago granting them continued access to land, territory, and resources, the U.S. government continues to take land when it is in the best interest of the U.S. This continued policy of "take what is needed when" would have to be addressed. Of course that would force the State to deal with indigenous peoples on a government-to-government relationship, one that most States don't want to engage in.

Free, prior and informed consent or a veto power:
The text currently includes an unqualified right of free, prior and informed consent for indigenous peoples on all matters that may affect them, which implies that indigenous peoples may exercise a right of veto over all matters of the State including the laws and reasonable administrative measures democratically enacted by the State. Again, another misleading concern. Is it so hard for States to ask the people it is about to disrupt for their concerns? It is not as difficult as States pretend to allow indigenous peoples to voice their concerns over proposed actions that will disrupt their culture, lifeways, and sustainability. Further, you don't have to grant them veto power, just grant them a voice (that actually is heard).

Lack of clarity as to who are "Indigenous peoples":
There is uncertainty as to the text's application or non-application with respect to tribal groups, ethnic groups, minority groups, and indigenous peoples. This, I agree, could be defined a little better.

Military Defence issues:
The text could be misconstrued so as to be inconsistent with existing legal obligations and to restrict the ability of the State to protect its population and territory, including efforts for civil defence and emergency preparedness. I have never seen a State not protect itself because of an Indigenous population. This is the same type of tactic that the U.S. is using to claim that almost anyone is a terrorist these days. I'm sure if there was a real emergency, the Indigenous population would want the help of the State, as long as the State didn't then end up continually occupying the area.

Protections for the Rights of Others:
The text suggests that Indigenous rights prevail over the rights of others, without sufficiently taking into account the rights of other individuals and groups, and the welfare of society as a whole. No, it just says that Indigenous peoples should be given an equal voice. No group of peoples rights should trump another.

Intellectual Property Rights:
In stating that indigenous peoples have a right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, cultural expressions and traditional knowledge, as well as rights to human and genetic resources, the text goes well beyond current and evolving intellectual property rights regimes and could undermine complex negotiations in other fora. This is a tricky one, and there is no easy solution. Biophrama companies don't like this because then they would have to work with Indigenous populations in their quest to make new drugs. Likewise, researchers and the like would have to ask permission and be much more transparent about their actions when doing various types of studies (the current IRB-based system is not a sound solution).

The current text could be interpreted in a manner inconsistent with national and sub-national educational systems. The text does not take into account the diversity of culture and language within many States, or the need to meet applicable educational standards. Beyond the standard colonial process that this sets up, it seems rather short-sighted in terms of education in general. Why not adopt Indigenous knowledge and educational techniques into the "applicable educational standards?" Is there only one way to be educated? It seems like rather than being a worrisome clause, this could be beneficial, at least in terms of education.

Well, you get the picture. Directed and manipulated by States, the U.N. has little impact in terms of actually helping Indigenous peoples around the world. All of these "concerns" will be more than likely adopted into the declaration, making it rather weak in terms of its action (beyond the non-binding status of the declaration in general). That is why I prefer to be a little more grass-roots in my approach. The State will never put anything before its own interests. Thus, Indigenous peoples will never get any rights that may potentially hamper the State, at least not from a top-down approach such as the U.N. The only way I see it to really affect change is from the bottom-up. The Internet is perfect for this. Send this blog around, get it listed all over the place. Tell your friends and family. Tell your congress person. There are only a few thousand political power brokers in the world; there are billions of people. If you get the people behind you, then the politicians will eventually follow. Lets get involved!

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Rebecca said...

For some reason technical reason beyond my luddite understanding, my comment about this post has been posted to another post. Sorry. :(

Peter N. Jones said...


I moved your comment to here so that it would be logged with this post. I agree, it is NOT about indigenous peoples' rights, but simply about governments and resource exctactors securing money, rights, and resources.


Just found your blog and noted your post. The current Australian government has voiced some pathetic excuses over the years as to why it won't support such an instrument. There are two main objections from the Australian government to the UN instrument:

*current Australian laws and instruments already guarantee the rights of indigenous people

*the proposed UN instrument conflicts with the Australian constitution and the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993

The contentions of the Australian goverment are hard to understand (not to mention embarrassing and unfound) given the ratification of previous UN/ILO treaties & conventions.

A history of the genesis of Aboriginal land rights in Australia tells us that its not really about indigenous rights, it's about legal certainty for governments and resource developers.

Perhaps Rio Tinto will take up the cause behalf of indigenous peoples? A tad cynical :0

Anyway, just some info

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