While forest Indian bands in Brazil were being chased and murdered in early
December by new settlers who would destroy them in order to re-demarcate
their traditional lands, at the United Nations the Draft Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples, remains a work-in-progress.
The Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the gem of the
international indigenous movement, is the important long-term international
work by thousands of Native delegates to the United Nations over nearly 30
years. Since 1977, when for the first time indigenous peoples gained a
toehold of recognition from the international community, this ever-evolving
document of 19 preambular paragraphs, nine sections and 45 articles has
been the bastioned goal for establishing new covenants to protect
The idea that "their aspirations should be enshrined in a new instrument"
of international law, which surfaced to full discussion even at that early
conference, was central to the movement that took the indigenous voice to
the United Nations.
Those aspirations were placed on hold, as United States, New Zealand and
Australia objected vigorously to the language of the declaration during
debates at the 11th session of the U.N. Working Group on the Draft
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
While many countries participating in the session have agreed to recognize
a genuine right of self-determination for indigenous peoples, some fear
that indigenous nations may try to secede and form independent countries.
Deliberations are continuing on how to assure countries like the United
States, Indonesia, China, New Zealand and Australia that indigenous nations
will not disrupt their territorial integrity -- a legal principle that
holds no group has a legal right to break away and form an independent
Many years of work could be set back against the establishment of
significant international covenants if the Human Rights Commission denies
consensus in the next two to three years. Unless U.S. opposition is turned
into a strong commitment to the self-governance and self-determination of
American Indian tribal nations, the declaration will die a slow death. The
United States must be urged to support in this case the guarantee of Indian
The right of self-determination is a major item in the declaration. The
assertion that Native peoples are definable under the principle of
self-determination is a heated one. The fear that self-determination will
lead to the right to secede from particular nation-states worries these
governments a great deal. This fear is more fancy than reality, as most
Native nations are already intertwined in varying degrees with the
economic, social and political structures of nation-states.
The declaration reads, in Part 1, Article 3: "Indigenous peoples have the
right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine
their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and
Other articles express the right "to maintain and strengthen their distinct
political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their
legal systems, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they
so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the
The North American Indian delegates to the 1977 U.N. conference complained
that Congress had such plenary power over the Indian nations that no rights
at all could be taken for granted. As international and Indian law
attorney, Robert (Tim) Coulter reminded the various chiefs' delegations
during the session, in the legal sense, Indian tribal nations in the United
States are at the complete mercy of Congress. While social and historical,
as well as legal, precedents play a role in shaping national U.S. Indian
policy, the Native peoples were in dire need to generate a body of law to
cement their rights. "If the state or national governments are the judges
of our lands and resources, it's the same old foxes guarding the
chicken-house," stated an Indian editorial from that era.
The argument by U.S.-based American Indian nations and their lawyers that
indigenous peoples -- as distinct groups -- were without protections in
their home countries and required attention internationally resonated with
the aspirations of representatives of indigenous peoples in Central and
South America, and ultimately hundreds of indigenous nations globally.
In many countries, such as Brazil, only constant pressure on the government
will mobilize it to protect isolated tribal groups, which nevertheless
possess lands traditionally and which, under any fair sense of property
ownership, would have protected such territories. Brazil, still with
previously un-contacted indigenous nations to honor and protect, has been a
strong advocate for Indian tribal self-determination during this debate.
Over the long haul, the Native representatives have intensely supported the
adoption of U.N. "instruments" so as to "give the clearest indication that
the international community is committing itself to the protection of the
individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples." At the
international level, for peoples who were completely shut out of so-called
civilized nationhood just 30 years ago, such a process necessarily began
with a "declaration" that would be debated for three decades through the
multi-layered system of the United Nations.
The discussion took place first among indigenous organizations, with the
nation-states as observers. It is presently at the Human Rights Commission,
being negotiated directly by the nation-states but in consultation with the
Native delegations. It has been a long road and the definitive step would
be its adoption by the General Assembly.
The 30-year international discussion on indigenous peoples' issues has led
to numerous fruitful partnerships, particularly with human rights and
community development institutions. In Brazil's Rio Pardo region, precisely
because of a timely and loud international outcry, by early December the
national government was vigorously arresting the organized thugs from
encroaching operations of illegal land speculators. These gangs had been
systematically killing isolated Indian bands in order to clear the title
for private enterprises. Thus, because of the international work of the
past 30 years, de facto, people of conscience can weigh in on the side of
the survival of tribal peoples.
The draft of "principles," first penned by Coulter in 1977 in consultation
with traditional chiefs, clan mothers and headmen from various nations,
gained increased formality in 1985 when its promised road of eventual
adoption and proclamation by the General Assembly was initiated in the
Working Group on Indigenous Populations. The group submitted its version of
the text to the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human
Rights, which adopted it in 1994 and submitted it in turn to the Commission
on Human Rights. In 1995, the Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples was formed and immediately instituted changes
that allowed the participation of some 100 indigenous peoples in the
open-ended "inter-sessional" discussions.
The present declaration draft is the result of 10 years of such work, which
successfully placed indigenous peoples in the context of the universal
process of de-colonization recognized by the international community. It
has taken a considerable effort to pursue the indigenous rights goals
through the labyrinthine U.N. system. If the United States would stand up
to its promise to the Native peoples in the international context, Indian
country could certainly regain more of its proper footing in American
jurisprudence, which has gone seriously astray.
All tribal leaders in the United States are urged to contact the White
House and urge President George W. Bush to instruct the legal department at
the U.S. State Department to urge the adoption of the Draft Declaration on
the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to support a positive vote for it at
the level of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The United States
has, in recent decades, begun to implement a steady (if still shy) policy
of self-governance for Native tribal nations. Considering the malaise
across the world currently blamed on the United States, merited or not, a
good case can be made that any reasonable American approach to tribal
peoples' peaceful reach for self-determination is worth featuring and
supporting in international processes.