Human rights initiatives, including the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, have avoided direct recognition of indigenous peoples. Human rights documents speak of individual rights and more recently, thanks to the Declaration, there are discussions of collective rights. There should be no mistake, the recent developments in international human rights are very important. The Declaration should be given credit for expanding the human rights initiative to include broader understanding of collective group human rights.
Nevertheless, from the point of view of indigenous rights, the Declaration presents an abstract interpretation of collective rights, where indigenous peoples are encouraged to seek redress within nation-states. This is a possible solution to some land, political and cultural rights if the nation-states are willing to accept the positions of indigenous rights to land, and political and cultural autonomy.
Placing collective human rights within a nation-state framework, however, assumes that the collective entities seeking redress are composed of citizens, and accept the legal and political processes of the nation-state. Collective group rights are processed as an issue of national and procedural fairness within a common agreed upon consensual legal and institutional relations. Many groups may seek redress within this framework, although many critical indigenous rights issues may find the collective human rights path difficult, if not impossible.
The collective human rights position imposes the culture, political authority and citizenship of the nation-states upon indigenous peoples.
Most nation-states in the world do not give formal recognition to indigenous peoples. Of those that do, some often do not support their recognition with agreements that enable indigenous peoples to exercise political, territorial, or cultural rights. Most indigenous peoples are recognized as citizens of nation-states, who are then recognized to have the same rights and obligations of all other citizens. Since most nation-states do not recognize indigenous peoples as collective entities, how can nation-states identify indigenous people so they can exercise or plead their rights under the Declaration?
Furthermore, many, if not most, indigenous peoples are not citizens by consent. Their citizenship was declared by the nation-state, often without consultation or agreement with indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples do not share the same legal and political institutions as nation-states, and usually do not share the same values and political systems. The collective human rights position imposes the culture, political authority and citizenship of the nation-states upon indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples usually do not want to challenge nation-states, but at the same time want to recover democratic and consensual relations with nation-states that will uphold indigenous exercise of political, cultural and territorial autonomy.
Without formal nation-state recognition of indigenous peoples, it is difficult for indigenous peoples to exercise their rights, and they are forced to engage in, or decline to engage in, the legal and political processes of collective citizens. Recognizing indigenous peoples can be a slippery slope. In the United States, the government determines who is an indigenous nation. The determination of indigenous recognition is not done by consent or consultation with indigenous peoples, and tends to impose U.S. interpretations of tribal organization.
The difficult issues of recognizing indigenous peoples who will have the protections of indigenous human rights should not be embedded within the sole power of nation-states. Indigenous peoples need international and nation-state recognition that empowers them to maintain government-to-government relations. Such recognition will identify indigenous political relations and provide better understanding of which groups should exercise indigenous rights.
From the beginning, nation-states need to address indigenous peoples as government entities, rather than as citizens, or collective citizen groups. If nation-states and human rights initiatives do not recognize indigenous rights as government-to-government rights, then indigenous peoples will continue to suffer political, cultural and territorial suppression. Human rights initiatives and contemporary democratic states will not have found a consensual way to understand and include indigenous peoples. There will be no truly democratic nations until indigenous peoples are recognized and empowered to exercise their rights.