The Past, Present, and Future of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

     by Rawiri Taonui / Cultural Survival

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP 2007). Indigenous Peoples have come a long way. Our individual struggles coalesced during the 1970s in the Indigenous-initiated World Council of Indigenous Peoples. A decade of consultation and negotiation through the United Nations culminated in a first draft. Some of those who had worked on the draft lost their lives in struggles at home.

Consultation with states followed. On one side, the will of Indigenous representatives to craft a document worthy of the aspirations of first nation communities; on the other side the reservation of states.

The chair of the first Intergovernmental Working Group refused Indigenous representatives the right to speak. Silence incompatible with a voice seeking freedom, a walk out followed, the rules were changed and discussion proceeded. A New Zealand representative once described the Declaration as constituting discrimination – an easy allegory for an uneasy conscience.

The Declaration
On 13 September 2007, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration – 143 countries in support, 4 against and 12 abstaining. The culmination of 500 years of struggle against colonisation, racism and neo-liberalism, every passage in the Declaration is a response to injustices suffered by Indigenous Peoples.

The preambulatory paragraphs and articles affirms the collective and individual human rights of First Nations as Peoples and human beings and in doing so proclaims our equality with all other members of society. The Declaration provides a framework for reconciliation with nation states by mapping a pathway to overcome the historical denial of our rights and established the minimum requisite standard for our advancement and the restoration of our dignity.

Our Place as Indigenous Peoples
The Declaration reminds us that the sovereignty of the States that came to wield power over us was not attained through “free and intelligent consent”, but through the trickery or absence of treaties, through warfare the coloniser called conquest, victory and the Christian mission, which today we understand to have been cultural genocide, the unjust alienation of our territories, the suppression of our languages, forced cultural assimilation, the inter-generational marginalisation of our societies at all levels, including the taking of our children through Residential Schools in North America, the Stolen Generations in Australia and in New Zealand through what were “State Care Homes.”

The Declaration has lifted the confidence of Indigenous Peoples. Our rights are more visible. We are important. We are the descendants of the first arrivals or earliest surviving occupants of a land. We number between 350 to 500 million people living in up to 90 countries. We comprise 5,000 distinct cultural groups speaking 4,000 of the world’s 7,000 languages. We are home to 90% of the world’s cultural diversity.

We live upon 22 per cent of the Earth’s land mass harbouring 80 per cent of its remaining biodiversity. Our cultures, ancestral knowledges and philosophies are deeply embedded within the environment; the Skyfather, the Earthmother and their children are our relations. Once belittled, our epistemologies are integral to the survival of the planet.

Progress on the Declaration
Several of the original abstentions, such as Colombia and Samoa, now support the Declaration; 182 States at the Durban World Conference on Racism endorsed the Declaration. Having overcome the self-inflicted trauma of their previous hesitation, the governments of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand now support the Declaration.

God may also be on our side, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on meaningful climate action declaring that Indigenous Peoples “should be the principle dialogue partners” on matters concerning the environment and that when our land rights are protected we are the best guardians of the world’s forests and biodiversity. 

Guided by the principle that “no one is left behind”; Indigenous Peoples are a priority under the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

From the Waitangi Tribunal and courts in New Zealand where the Declaration reinforces the 1834 Declaration of Independence and the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, to Belize, Bangladesh and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights the international judiciary is increasingly citing the Declaration. Many more cases are going before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Court of Human Rights, and the rulings and decisions are supporting the protection of Indigenous rights.

Indigenous rights are being recognised in new laws and/or being enshrined in constitutional instruments. South America has been an important leader, in particular Bolivia under the leadership of President Evo Morales.

In Asia, Myanmar and Japan are considering greater recognition. In Europe, Denmark has granted greater self-government to Greenland where 90% of the 56,000 population is Inuit.

In Africa, the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Namibia and Burundi have taken steps to recognise Indigenous Peoples. Others have processes in place. 

Where once the killing of Indigenous People was conducted with impunity – the historical massacres in Australia, the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee in the United States, and Handley’s Woolshed, Rangiaowhia, Ngā Tapa in New Zealand – there is increasing accountability. The leader of a militia that massacred Mbuti Peoples in the Ituri forest was sentenced to 18 years in prison. There have been arrests in Honduras for the killing of the distinguished Lenca leader Berta Caceres shot dead in 2016.

Many challenges remain. Even where the countries have adopted the Declaration, most have not been able to implement it effectively.

Compromises in the Declaration from discussion with states will be difficult to overcome. States objected to Article 3 the Right to Self-determination. The compromise in Article 46, essentially that Indigenous Peoples cannot form new states, reinforces uncertainty and dislocation for Indigenous Peoples straddling the borders of nation states. The Karen spanning the river border between Thailand and Myanmar, the Guarani spread between countries across the Amazon, and 30 million  Kurds, the largest nationality in the world without a country, are divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

We are losing one Indigenous language every two weeks. We remain the world’s most vulnerable peoples. At 6% of the world’s population we are 15% of the world’s poorest peoples. Wherever we live, we are the poorest of the poor.

It is unlikely that we will realise the goal of equality under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development because it does not prioritise the right to self-determination or the principle of free, prior and informed consent and therefore will not prevent the avarice of development that threatens many Indigenous Peoples. Every year were hear  submissions at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples echoing the words “we may not survive.”

Extractive Industries
The majority of new extractive industry projects, including mining, drilling, hydro-electric, forestry and agribusiness, are in Indigenous areas from the Artic to the Amazon, from West Papua to Africa. Drilling and fracking quench an insatiable thirst for oil. Agribusiness feeds a gluttonous demand for beef burgers. Environmentally friendly biofuels have unfriendly impacts on first communities. Coltan, tin and tungsten build our cell phones, laptops and flat screens.

The extractive industries cost many lives. It is sobering to apprehend that in the ten years since the signing of the Declaration the annual number of individual Indigenous human rights advocates being killed has doubled to 600 per year.

Directly and indirectly, these industries have cost 100,000 West Papuan lives since 1963. From 1998 to 2003, 10,000 to 70,000 Indigenous peoples lost their lives in the conflict mineral regions of central Africa. Alongside gorillas and elephants some were eaten as bush meat supplying militias.

The Struggle for Identity
Many Indigenous Peoples struggle for recognition. China supported the Declaration, an official once stating because there are no Indigenous people in China. There are 10 million Uighur, 2 million Tibetans and 13 million Yao-Mein and Miao-Hmong.

India recognises 400 groups numbering 84 million people as Scheduled Tribes; over 600 groups numbering at least the same are not recognised. Russia recognises ‘northern groups’ as Indigenous but only if their population is smaller than 50,000.

The San, Khoi, Mbuti, Mbenga, Twa and Batwa are the earliest African Indigenous Peoples and oldest cultures on Earth. Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia do not recognise their indigeneity.
Racism, Violence and Suicide
Indigenous Peoples continue to face grave racism. In developed countries this has a “new colourism.” Dominant institutions prefer indigenes if we are compliant, middle class, fair skinned and have European features.

Indigenous women and children continue to endure significant violence. There is an emerging world-wide crisis in Indigenous suicide.

New Zealand acknowledges the UNICEF Building the Future report saying that at 15.6 per 100,000 we have the worst adolescent suicide rate in the developed world. What is not recognised is that the national figure is elevated by a high Māori youth suicide rate, often double or more than for non-Māori, in conjunction with their higher proportion of the national population proportion (35% under 15 years old; 27% between 15 and 40) when compared with other Indigenous situations. The crisis is Māori suicide.

Comparative figures demonstrate that the Indigenous suicide rates in Canada, Australia, the United States, and among the Nenets of Russia, the Guarani of Brazil and the Sami of Scandinavia are equal to, or higher than Māori. However, they do not lift their national average in the same way because the Indigenous demographic is a significantly smaller proportion of the national population than that of Māori.

If we do not understand the problem then we miss the best solutions. Mainstream approaches to suicide focus on mental health, bad parenting, drug addiction, crime and poverty. These approaches have their place, however, they are also driven by underlying deficit assumptions about the inferiority of first cultures.

In the case of Māori, historical research shows that pre-European Māori were good parents; before 1900 when the language was intact Māori were just 3% of prisoners – today they are 50%; before the mass urbanisation of the 1950s every Māori knew their marae and subtribe and suicide was half that of Europeans. A Canadian study has shown that where 50% or more of an Indigenous community speaks their language suicide is between half that of other communities and zero.

Cultural alienation as anomie is a causal factor so too its relation racism and discrimination. They compress Indigenous youth between two worlds and a past they do not understand, a present that does not understand them and a future without hope.

The Future
The Declaration is not perfect. A lack of action by governments is the greatest impediment to progress. Nevertheless, the journey has begun. We live in a new world.

Standing Rock has taught us of the power of social media in the fight to raise consciousness.

New allies may benefit the cause of Indigenous Peoples. North America and Europe require 100 million new immigrants each by 2050 to support ageing European populations.  Many immigrants suffered oppression in old countries and confront racism in new lands. In a country like New Zealand the combined Māori, Pasifika and immigrant community will equal and then surpass the European population somewhere around 2050. We are natural allies and will be the majority of the work force, the parliamentarians and the decision makers.

There is a changing of the guard between the West and the developing world. Alt-right and the American presidency are a reaction to that. In 2050, 27 of the fastest growing economies in the world will be formerly oppressed brown colonies. Those who can work with other cultures as equals will be a force for change.

There are risks. We need to stay grounded with the lowest common denominator in our communities and the realities of other Indigenous Peoples, use our proven resilience and capacity to fight for our rights and survive in the face of great difficulties to take all our people forward in emancipatory praxis.

We need to be cognisant of the risks of building a self-serving middle class, confining power to small elites or suffering rigid cultural nationalism lest the formerly oppressed becoming the new oppressor. For those who survive the next generation there is a future.

–Rawiri Taonui is a professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences & Global Centre for Indigenous Leadership at Massey University in New Zealand.

This paper was presented at the Conference on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 5-6 September 2017 at Te Papa Tongareva – Wellington Museum, New Zealand.


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