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Meanings Create and Shape Human Reality: The UN HLPM Outcome Document

In 1996, while attending the Intersessional Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, I posed a question to the United States delegates. My question had to do with the future potential of a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the event that it was adopted by the UN General Assembly (that happened on September 13, 2007).

A U.S. delegate who was a “Political Counsel” for the US Mission to the UN in Geneva, responded with a profound comment: “To the extent that words have meanings, and to the extent that meanings configure reality, the draft Declaration has importance.” His answer was about semantics—the study of meanings. He was providing us with a critical insight from the viewpoint of the United States. Specifically, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and any documents purportedly created for its “implementation,” contain the potential to reconfigure reality, or to maintain it in its current form. Our thoughts, behaviors, and face-to-face interactions which construct our reality operate on the basis of such interpretations.

The U.S. representative’s comment was insightful and helpful when it comes to a discussion of the upcoming UN High Level Plenary Meeting (UN HLPM) of the UN General Assembly. It is a gathering the U.N says “to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples,” even though it isn’t one. The U.S. representative’s comment demonstrates that the officials of the United States who work in the international arena are carefully, one might say obsessively, considering the most subtle nuances of the meanings of words being used in any given situation or document. This is because they are fully cognizant of the fact that those words have the potential to reshape the very nature of the reality experienced by the United States and by any nations and peoples that are termed “indigenous.” For that reason, this work is highly political.

Because of the way in which meanings “configure reality,” the United States and other states of the world constantly “play semantics,” to use the phrase employed recently by Dr. Rudy Ryser in a recent column about international politics. Specifically, he said: “I am confident that Steven Newcomb will agree with me that this is no time to play semantics.” That’s just another way of saying, “this is no time to fool around with the subtle meanings or interpretations of words.”

Given the number of decades Dr. Ryser has been working with U.S. federal Indian law and policy, and in international arena, one would expect him to be fully cognizant of the relationship between the meanings of words (semantics) and reality construction. Yet for some reason he downplays this. Not once did he mention the HLPM outcome document in his recent article, or in the one before that. The outcome document is made up of words and their meanings, and it is the most critical aspect of the entire UN HLPM.

The outcome document has already been written. State governments will now take it behind closed doors to have the final say about its content. The international states are going to use words and interpretations to make certain that the HLPM outcome document serves their best interests, all in the name of “implementing” the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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The states of the world have been “playing semantics” to the hilt in the recent “Interactive Hearings” about the drafting of the HLPM outcome document. Why are the state governments so concerned with the wording of the Zero point document? It’s because the wording and interpretation of that document have the potential to reconfigure reality for our Nations and Peoples, and the states are making their best effort to prevent that from happening. For them the status quo is just fine, and they want to maintain the existing semantic reality of what is now “prevailing” state “dominance.”

We exist in a sea of interpretations. Dr. Ryser talks about “establishing political equality between nations and states,” but what does that mean? We cannot possibly know what he means by that statement unless we know how he interprets the phrase “political equality between nations and states.” Then, again, the sociologist and political philosopher Max Weber correctly pointed out that when we are dealing with “a state” we are dealing with “[o]rganized domination, which calls for continuous administration,” and which “requires that human conduct be conditioned to obedience towards those masters who claim to be the bearers of legitimate political power.”

As I’ve said in previous columns, the context of the state is, in Weber’s view, “a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e., considered to be legitimate) violence.” Whether we want to admit it or not, this is the context of the United Nations itself, and the context within the state controlled outcome document for the UN HLPM is being drafted. The notion of “establishing political equality between nations and states” is incoherent because the very nature of the state is not premised on equality, but on state dominance over all potential political competitors. “If the state is to exist,” says Weber, “the dominated must obey the authority claimed by powers that be.”

Dr. Ryser has not only chosen to avoid dealing with the fact that the political system of states is predicated on domination, but he has even said: “It is not necessary to complain about state domination…” Ironically, “state domination” is redundant because “the state” is, by definition, “a state of domination.”

That being the case, it may not be necessary “to complain” about the domination of the state, but it certainly is sensible to name it, look at directly and decide how to factor that reality into the UN High Level Plenary Meeting and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Mention of “the territorial integrity of the state” in Article 46 of the UN Declaration is accurately interpreted as the territorial domination of the state, which the states of the world insist on maintaining in the name of “implementing” the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Want a concrete example? Just think of state dominance being used to impose the Tar Sands on Original Nations and their territories.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.