Last week in Geneva, James Anaya, The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, discovered from a colleague that he had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Soon after his nomination, indigenous leaders worldwide spoke out in support.
“If American lawyer James Anaya wins the world’s most prestigious political award, the development could represent a major advance in the human rights battle for aboriginals in Canada,” said Grand Chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Stewart Phillip to the Vancouver Sun.
The Norwegian Member of Parliament who nominated Anaya told the Sun that awarding the Peace Prize to Anaya could send a powerful signal to governments around the world and heighten the profile of Indigenous Peoples.
Anaya—who has called out Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper’s government for not doing enough to reduce poverty, address missing and murdered aboriginal women and more—spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network about receiving the nomination, his work as a Special rapporteur and the state of indigenous issues.
Congratulations on your nomination.
Thanks so much. I was real surprised, and I certainly wasn't expecting that.
How did you learn you were nominated?
I was in Geneva last week attending meetings, and one of the officials at the U.N. who is from Finland and reads Norwegian newspapers had come across it in a publication. He said, “Let me be the first to congratulate you.” I just thought he was joking.
What do you do in your position as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?
It is the position that the U.N. has established for monitoring the human rights condition of indigenous people around the world. The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body, and I report to them.
Basically I am charged with receiving information from sources and investigating situations on my own that may give rise to potential or ongoing human rights problems. I am authorized to communicate directly with governments In order to address these situations and try to overcome the problems.
We get a lot of written communications from Indigenous Peoples’ organizations on a daily basis. We sift through those and follow up on them. It is a rare occasion when I will just go out and look for a problem, because they are brought to me. The mechanism is made this way for Indigenous Peoples to access the U.N. system for some kind of intervention.
I'll also do visits to countries in an effort to identify problems and seek solutions to overcoming them. I won't just look at one case but I will look at the overall case in that country and do a country report. And I have done maybe or 18 or 20 of these in different countries. I will also do thematic reports, which are based on an issue. For example I look at extractive industries and what they do on indigenous territories.
Like the Alberta oil sands?
Yes, that would be included. What I try to do is not just point out the problems. The idea is to try and identify solutions—and that is the hard part, actually. Uncovering the truth, of course, is very important—to reveal a problem draws attention to them.
How do you deal with governments that may or may not want to address these needs?
There is not a whole lot I can do, I but report to the U.N. Council. I sit in front of them every year—it is a formal setting in which I give my report and raise these issues. I can call out the country, and maybe that has some effect and maybe it doesn't. My reports are public, so maybe the media will pick up on them and use them in their advocacy.
What is your ratio of success to failure?
It is actually quite rare that the government does not respond. These are complicated cases, of course, Unless it is just an outright violation In which people are killed. Then this discussion would be how to remedy that.
A lot of these situations are complex in that there are persistent social and economic problems like you have in Canada and in this country. How do you address those? How do you say a government is doing enough or not enough? These are complex issues.
How long have you been doing this?
I was appointed first in 2008 for an initial three-year term and then appointed for another term in 2011, which is coming to an end at the end of April. These positions are limited to two terms, so I will not be reappointed.
What if you win the Nobel Prize?
I don't even want to speculate. It is not something I am even contemplating as something that is really in my future. I am looking forward to my life as a law professor and furthering my work on these issues from my position as an academic.
Obviously it is an honor. But I try to put it in perspective. It is really a recognition of the importance of the issues, and this is why I think it needs to be highlighted. There are a number of qualified people who are nominated every year for this position, and that needs to be kept in mind. This is by no means a foregone conclusion. In fact I see it as a long shot.
What is coming presently?
I have a report on Canada coming out soon that is going to be touching on a number of issues. I have another report on Peru and there are some interesting things happening there that have gotten a lot of media coverage involving oil and gas development. I'll have some fairly unique angles on some of those issues that have not come out. These reports are only useful If people see them and notice them. I really appreciate thoughtful journalists who work to get this word out.