Indigenous Self Determination In International Law Key

Self-determination as defined in international law runs like a thread through a document that emerged from an Indigenous Peoples meeting last week.

The theme of self-determination as defined in international law runs like a thread through a document that emerged from an Indigenous Peoples meeting in Norway last week in preparation for the High-Level Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

The Alta Outcome Document, which was adopted by consensus, sets out recommendations for the High-Level Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples – the HLPM-WCIP for short – that will take place September 22-23 at the United Nations in New York next year. Two hundred Indigenous delegates and around 400 observers from the seven regions of the world — Asia. Africa, North America, Central and South America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia, the Arctic, and the Pacific, as well as the Indigenous Women and Youth Caucuses — attended the Global Indigenous Preparatory Conference in Alta, Norway, June 10-12, which was organized by the Saami Parliament of Norway, the U.N. announced in a press release.

The eight-page Outcome Document begins with a preamble that reviews the “instrumental” role Indigenous Peoples have played in advocating for and recognition of human rights and the adoption of the International Labor Organization Convention 169 and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration). It reaffirms the “peremptory norms of international law” as the basis on which states must uphold all manner of human rights, meaning there is no room for individual states to act on the basis of their own imposed interpretations of terms such as human rights or self determination.

With weight placed on the primacy of international law, the Outcome Document affirms, “that the inherent and inalienable right of self determination is preeminent and is a prerequisite for the realization of all rights. We Indigenous Peoples, have the right of self determination and permanent sovereignty over our lands, territories, resources, air, ice, oceans and waters, mountains and forests.” The right of self determination is mentioned a total of 11 times in the eight-page document.

The emphasis of self determination in international law in the Outcome Document reflects indigenous opposition to statements made last month at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by Laurie Shestack Phipps, the United States advisor for economic and social affairs of the United States Mission to the United Nations, regarding the federal government’s position on the Declaration. Phipps’ statement repeated parts of the State Department’s white paper of December 16, 2010 – the day President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. was “lending its support” to the Declaration. “We would like to take this opportunity to note that the Declaration is a non-binding, aspirational document,” Phipps stated. “We would also like to reiterate the U.S. government’s view that self-determination, as expressed in the Declaration, is different from self-determination in international law.” (Related story: US Government Under Fire at Permanent Forum Ahead of World Conference)

A number of indigenous rights organizations, notably the International Indian Treaty Council and the Indigenous Law Institute, rejected the U.S. position outright in formal interventions presented at the Permanent Forum. (Related story: International Indian Treaty Council: Full Rights for Indigenous Peoples)

Delegates at the Alta conference included in the Outcome Document “four overarching themes that encapsulate those issues that are of greatest importance to us as Indigenous Peoples.” The themes are Indigenous Peoples’ land, territories, resources oceans and waters; the U.N. system action for the implementation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples; Implementation of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and Indigenous Peoples Priorities for Development with free, prior and informed consent. Each theme includes multiple recommendations.

The delegation from the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus (NAIPC) announced its support for the Alta Outcome document based on a previous document that the caucus created at the NAIPC gathering that took place March 1-3 in the Kumeyaay Territory now commonly called “San Diego,” Debra Harry (Numu) reported in an e-mail June 14. The caucus includes Native American tribal nations, First Nations' leadership, community members, elders, youth, and Indigenous non-governmental organizations. The document was ceremonially bundled at the Kumeyaay meeting and carried to Alta, Norway, as the basis for the NAIPC’s “exploratory” attendance at the Alta conference.

“Kenneth Deer (Mohawk) read to the Alta Gathering the NAIPC position statement from Sycuan. Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape), representing the American Indian Movement of Colorado—and who was part of the North American Caucus document drafting team—stated from the stage that the North American Caucus was attending the Alta Gathering on an exploratory basis to see where this can go in the lead up to the 2014 High Level Plenary Meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. He also said that the North American Caucus does not support the view that the purpose of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is to ‘incorporate’ Indigenous Peoples into the body politic of the state,” Harry wrote.

In the last day of the Alta conference, Harry presented an intervention with three primary points: “1) With regard to an action plan, the NAIPC reserves all rights to decision-making with regard to future work in relation to the HLP/WCIP. 2) The NAIPC does not empower any body or entity to speak for, represent, or negotiate any positions on our behalf, and 3) The NAIPC, regardless of the content of the Alta Outcome Document, is committed to sharing a historical context and update that includes the outcomes of this conference with our regions and improve upon our communications to our Indigenous Peoples and Nations affected,” she wrote.

Harry said the North American caucus accepted the Alta Outcome Document because it “affirms our inherent and preeminent right of self-determination in international law, our original free existence, and our inherent sovereignty, all of which are in our view non-negotiable. The North America Caucus support expressed for the Alta Outcome Document was premised on the NAIPC’s self-determination language having been accepted in the final version of the document.”

NAIPC’s bundled document will continue to be the reference point as the group moves forward on an exploratory basis toward the HLPM-WCIP event next year, Harry said. The caucus will re-examine its position in early 2014 vis a vis the HLPM-WCIP.

The decision to hold the high level conference was made by U.N. General Assembly Resolution on December 21, 2010. The event’s goal is “to share perspectives and best practices on the realization of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including to pursue the objectives of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The conference will include plenary sessions, informal roundtables and panel discussions.