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Newcomb: Affirm the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Any time now, the United Nations General Assembly is likely to decide whether or not to adopt the U.N. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Some U.N. member-states have indicated that they are opposed to an adoption of this historic human rights document. Why are some nation-states dead set on blockading the declaration? A short anecdote may provide a clue.

In 1996, I was among the indigenous representatives who traveled to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to attend the Intersessional Working Group on the U.N. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On one occasion, while a number of us were having a conversation with U.S. representatives to the Working Group, I asked the following question:

''Assuming that the U.N. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is eventually adopted by the General Assembly as a full-fledged convention, of what actual, practical significance will it be to indigenous nations and peoples throughout the world?''

A man who was working for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva immediately responded: ''Well,'' he said, ''to the extent that words have meaning, and to the extent that meanings configure reality, the draft declaration has importance.''

What he was pointing out is that every human reality is constructed by means of our concepts and ideas, combined with our ongoing physical, social and cultural activities. Our mental, social and cultural lives establish and maintain our reality. Our ideas are at the heart of the way we shape and create our reality. And this means that a fundamental shift in the ideas that guide our thoughts and our actions will result in a corresponding shift in the way we construct, understand and experience reality.

The member-states of the United Nations that are opposed to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People are not oblivious to the relationship between ideas (meanings) and the construction of reality. For centuries, the existing world order has given them the ability to access and profit from indigenous territories and resources without much hindrance at all. They are dead-set against indigenous nations and peoples being able to fundamentally change this arrangement that privileges them and other powerful interests with which they are aligned.

The CANZUS states (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States) are leery of a formal recognition in international law that indigenous nations and peoples have fully protected and collective fundamental human rights. They fear that such recognition will make it more difficult for their respective governments - and the corporations with which they work hand-in-glove - to exploit indigenous lands and resources.

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At the 1996 Intersessional Working Group, the vast majority of the Indigenous Caucus walked out. This action brought the proceedings to a grinding halt for a while. The walkout was precipitated by the conduct of the chair of the Working Group. When the Indigenous Caucus brought to the floor a series of questions in an effort to seek clarity on a number of points on the agenda, the chair simply disregarded the questions. After decided that such cavalier and disrespectful treatment could not be tolerated without taking some form of action, a majority of the Indigenous Caucus left the proceedings.

Some of us who left the Intersessional Working Group proceedings at that time made a bold suggestion: Collectively call for the U.N. member-states to adopt the text of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that had already been adopted by the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations. After all, that version of the declaration had been worked on since 1977 and had been approved with the endorsement of indigenous representatives and indigenous experts.

Those of us in Geneva in 1996 recognized that once the process had reached the level of the Intersessional Working Group, only member-states would be the ultimate decision-makers. Indigenous representatives were permitted to provide their input and their recommendations, but ultimately the member-states were calling the shots. Furthermore, the Intersessional Working Group was charged with ''elaborating'' (expanding, amending or revising) the text of the declaration that had been adopted by the U.N. Working Group of Indigenous Populations. This was an open door for the states to begin undermining key provisions of the text.

Facing this situation, a number of us advocated that the Indigenous Caucus ought to take a unified stand: Given that our most fundamental human rights are not open to negotiation, we should call for the member-states to adopt the existing text of the declaration as is, without revisions, amendments, alterations or deletions. The member-states still might go ahead and rewrite the text in their favor, but they would have to do so without the legitimacy of indigenous participation. The lack of indigenous participation would then provide a basis for challenging a revised declaration that favored member-states.

Now, a full decade later, what many of us predicted in 1996 has come to pass. The version of the U.N. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was adopted by the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations has been changed by the chair of the Intersessional Working Group. And even that version is not to the liking of the obstructionist CANZUS states, or some African states that have put forth their own alternative version of an indigenous human rights declaration.

In the event that the obstructionist states are successful in preventing passage of a U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there is a way forward: Indigenous nations and peoples of the world ought to come together and formally adopt among themselves the version of the declaration that was first handed up from the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Let us affirm together that an inherent fundamental right of self-determination is our human rights baseline. After all, as we have already seen over the past 30 years, a momentum built from the collective voice of some 300 million indigenous people has tremendous influence on the world stage. That indigenous ability to influence the construction of reality is undoubtedly what has some states unnerved.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is the indigenous law research coordinator at the Education Department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.