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Invader-States Hijacked UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

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While watching the fraudulently-labeled United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (HLPM/WCIP--see end footnote 1, below)on UN WebTV on September 22-23, I was reminded of the famous quote from Thomas Pynchon: "If they get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers." The UN meeting was full of state members who had convinced a fair number of indigenous attendees to ask a multitude of the wrong questions. Unfortunately, whatever questions the indigenous people asked, the answer was always the same: the forces that invaded our homelands are firmly in charge at the UN.

Worse yet, the room at the UN contained indigenous people who attended the meeting from a position of fear, not from the courageous stance that defined the birth of the contemporary international movement for indigenous peoples' rights forty years ago. The indigenous spectators seemed to be attending because of insecurity that they were going to be left out of something big. They weren’t sure what, but they weren’t going to miss it. They refused to assert their most fundamental rights, for fear of irritating the UN members -- the very states that invaded our territories, slaughtered our people, and attempted to exterminate our cultures. It was a sorry spectacle, indeed.

The meeting proved to be a predictable success for invader-states of the United Nations. It also marked a retreat from the forty years of international struggle towards indigenous peoples' self-determination that took hold after the 71-day liberation of Wounded Knee in 1973. What most indigenous people around the world did not know about the HLPM/WCIP was that, ridiculously, the final conclusions, or as they called it the “Outcome Document” (OD), of the WCIP had already been completed by the states -- before the conference ever began. The meeting was a charade, with the outcome pre-determined. There was no need for any discussion, let alone debate. In fact, there was no need for the meeting, at all – except as an example of self-serving kabuki theatre, to allow states to perpetrate the fraud that they care anything about indigenous peoples.

The meeting was a retreat for indigenous peoples because the international indigenous peoples’ movement over the past forty years has been influenced largely through four essential, strategic priorities. These four positions were consciously excluded, or were rendered meaningless, in the final Outcome Document (OD) of the meeting:

1. Self-Determination. The right of self-determination for indigenous peoples, that is, the international legal right of indigenous nations freely to determine our political status and freely to pursue our economic, social and cultural development, is a hallmark of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) (Article3). Self-determination is mentioned nowhere in the OD. 

2. The international personality of indigenous nations, and the international character of treaties between indigenous nations and invader states. This principle is an extension of self-determination – and insists that indigenous peoples are not conquered nations and are not rightfully under the domination of, or occupation by, invader states. Similarly, the principle asserts that treaties between indigenous peoples and invaders must be accorded international respect and be subject to impartial, international arbitration, as alluded to in Article 37 of the UNDRIP. There is no mention, whatsoever, of treaties between indigenous nations and states in the OD. 

3. The right of Indigenous peoples to control our territories, natural resources and traditional knowledge. There are no guarantees in the OD to secure the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples prior to state or corporate invasions of indigenous peoples’ territories. There is no mention of state's commitment to enforcing FPIC. On the last day of the conference Canada explicitly stated that it would not support FPIC because Canada refuses to relinquish its presumed supremacy over indigenous nations. Canada’s colonial arrogance was not unique; Canada simply admitted it with the greatest blatancy. References to FPIC in the OD are gratuitous, having been rendered sterile by state pillaging of the substantive meaning of FPIC.

4. Dismantling the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. The legal bedrock upon which the U.S., Canada, and most other settler states rationalize their invasion, domination and destruction of indigenous peoples. This legal doctrine, the foundation for all US federal Indian law, legitimizes Christian, white supremacy and the theft of entire continents. The ongoing legitimacy of the doctrine in settler-state law violates the UN Charter, both UN human rights covenants, and the Conventional for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Yet, the “World Conference” OD ignored the issue entirely, and left the Doctrine of Discovery completely unexamined, and in tact.

States can make no pretense of forthright implementation of the UNDRIP while ignoring each of these four essential areas. Similarly, the indigenous people in the meeting can hardly claim the mantle of "leadership" after volunteering as props in a sham process, while allowing states to declare the meeting a success. The HLPM certainly proved to be a success for states - in their expanding domination and domestication of indigenous peoples. The “world conference” process permitted states to evade all accountability for their crimes against humanity, for genocide, and for their persistent, ongoing destruction of indigenous peoples, in the name of civilized progress, development, and globalization.

The state-controlled HLPM/WCIP process utilized three time-honored tactics against indigenous peoples, in achieving the deception of effective indigenous participation and consent in its ersatz “world conference”:

1. Divide and conquer 

2. Exclusion of the opposition, and 

3. Ingratiation. 

Certain UN members, (and the UN bureaucracy itself, which operates first and foremost to protect state interests) were masterful in establishing indigenous gatekeepers within the UN system, and in privileging those who were in favor of the HLPM/WCIP as the "good/reasonable Indians," while marginalizing those who had criticisms of it as the "bad/hostile Indians." By legitimizing the indigenous gatekeepers, the UN provided a level of insulation between the state parties who wanted the appearance of indigenous peoples' buy-in to the HLPM/WCIP, and those indigenous peoples who rejected state manipulation, who demanded respect and equal participation, and who refused to lend their consent to a counterfeit “world conference”

As it became clear that the indigenous gatekeepers could not achieve a global consensus for indigenous peoples' collaboration in the HLPM plan, the UN simply began to exclude and silence the opposition. When the North American Indigenous Peoples' Caucus (NAIPC) decided that it was not going to accept subordination and inequality in the “world conference” design, NAIPC representatives (both adult and youth) were systematically excluded from any debates or decisions regarding the meeting. The UN surreptitiously began to marginalize “bad Indians” and empower “pragmatic Indians,” who agreed to comply with the world conference program. The "reasonable Indians", like the representatives from the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC), the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) were validated by being allowed to remain in the UN communications loop; they were rewarded with information, access, and sometimes even funding, to facilitate their continued participation. This tactic took the form of explicitly denying funding to opposition delegates, while funding supportive ones, leading to the censoring of oppositional voices in planning meetings for the WCIP. Delegates critical of the WCIP were denied credentials, silencing their voices in the HLPM/WCIP. The states’ strategy was to provide the deception of indigenous consensus by excluding those who might have blocked consensus through the expression of critical or contrary perspectives.

The third tactic, ingratiation, was used flagrantly by certain indigenous delegates from the US and Canada to circumvent the NAIPC “bad/hostile Indians”, and to solicit the US and Canadian governments. In the US, the ILRC, NARF, NCAI, and IITC met and/or communicated directly with the US State Department representatives a number of times prior to the WCIP. In an apparent quid pro quo for the U.S. indigenous NGOs agreeing to follow the game plan at the HLPM, the US government tossed them a few crumbs. The crumbs came in the form of cosmetic support for uncontroversial postures from the NGOs that in no way challenged the supremacy of US plenary power in domestic Indian law and policy. The “good Indian” organizations will, of course, reject these characterizations, but the record speaks for itself. They allowed themselves, and cajoled several “tribal government” reps, to be exploited as extras in the states’ kabuki theatre. For their trouble, they came away from the meeting with absolutely nothing of substance.

One specific reflection of these cozy relations can be found in US representative Keith Harper's presentation to the WCIP on September 23. Harper, a Cherokee but speaking for the United States government, was named this year by Obama to be the US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council. The number of similarities between Harper’s address, and the positions being circulated by the ILRC/NARF/NCAI alliance defies coincidence. Certainly, the “pragmatic Indians” are jubilant that Harper mentioned the US’ consideration of the possibility of a place for Indian "tribal governments" somewhere, sometime in the UN system. The “reasonable Indians” (just like those “good Indians” of previous eras) would be well advised not to hold their breath for the U.S.’ artifice to be realized, any more than the thousands of other promises that litter the historical relationship between the US and indigenous nations.

In the debates over the past two years, about whether NAIPC should withdraw from the HLPM/WCIP, a defense of participation from North America was offered, based on the premise that it was important for indigenous peoples to participate in the HLPM/WCIP because, "if you're not at the table, then you're probably on the menu." In other words, to protect the gains of the past forty years, we must continue to participate in the UN process even, apparently, under conditions that might be disrespectful, unequal and destructive.

While watching the HLPM on the UN webcast, I thought of those debates and of the “menu” slogan. Another culinary paraphrase came to mind, this time from the great Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano: "your participation in this process allows you only to suggest the sauce with which you will be eaten." Unfortunately, the most that came out of this UN meeting for indigenous peoples was, as Galeano cautioned, the “opportunity” for indigenous peoples to participate in a process that allows us only to suggest the sauce with which we will be eaten by the invader states and corporations. We have been warned.

[1] Although the use of the word fraud might seem hyperbolic and divisive, it is, in my view, more accurate than a term such as pretension. Fraud describes an intentional deception with the goal of depriving people of their property or their rights. Some well-meaning or naive people were drawn into this process, and I do not mean to impute bad motives to them. Other indigenous gatekeepers in the UN system clearly understood what was happening and freely participated in it, fabricating rationalizations and excuses, at every turn. It is clear that some invader states advanced the WCIP to continue the state/corporate theft of indigenous peoples’ territories and to deprive indigenous peoples of fundamental rights under international law, as discussed below. Ultimately, the goal of these states was to use the WCIP to reduce and incorporate the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into domestic law, imprisoning indigenous peoples in the legal semantics of invader states. This fraud began with the imposition of the official title of the meeting, “A High Level Plenary Meeting (HLPM), to be known as The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.” Anyone familiar with the UN system knows that a HLPM is not synonymous with a World Conference. An authentic world conference is 10-14 days long, with thousands of participants, speakers, rallies, scholarly discussions, and with a final global plan of action to advance the goals of the conference. Examples of genuine world conferences are the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, and the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. This meeting in no way resembled a genuine world conference. It was analogous to one proclaiming, “This is my Prius, to be known as a Ferrari,” with the irrational expectation that the world should, in fact, acknowledge your Prius as a Ferrari. The fraudulent design of the plan was so clear to many indigenous people in North America, that the North American Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus called for the cancellation of the meeting, altogether, and refused to participate in it; see: /2014/03/12/naipc-says-un-indigenous-conference-insults-indigenous-peoples-153946

Glenn Morris (Shawnee) is a member/spokesperson for the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado. He is a professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Denver, where he directs the 4th World Center for the Study of Indigenous Law and Politics. He has been active in the defense of Native nations at the United Nations since 1981.