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Will the Permanent Forum Stand Up for Indigenous Peoples?

The U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) seems complicit in the burying of its most profound action to date: the critique of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery issued at its 13th Session in May 2014: "Study on the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery on indigenous peoples, including mechanisms, processes and instruments of redress." [UN Doc E/C.19/2014/3]

The Permanent Forum—like most conventional bodies—avoided naming the religious basis of the Doctrine. But the Study itself took aim at the root: "the presumption of racial superiority of Christian Europeans." The Doctrine "originated with the papal bulls issued during the so-called Age of Discovery in Europe. It was compounded by regulations, such as the Requerimiento, that emanated from royalty in Christian European States."

The Study showed how the Christian presumption of superiority embodied by the Doctrine of Discovery fuels colonial land seizures and genocide of Native Peoples. "In all its manifestations, 'discovery' has been used as a framework for justification to dehumanize, exploit, enslave and subjugate indigenous peoples and dispossess them of their most basic rights, laws, spirituality, worldviews and governance and their lands and resources. Ultimately it was the very foundation of genocide."

The Study concluded with a realistic appraisal and recommendation:

"History cannot be erased. Its course, however, can be changed to ensure the present and future well-being, dignity and survival of indigenous peoples. Dignity and respect for human rights must be guaranteed, especially in the light of existing vulnerabilities. There must be a full and honest account of the past, in order to ensure that colonial doctrines do not continue to be perpetuated. A clear shift of paradigm is critical from colonial doctrines to a principled human rights framework, consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international human rights law."

The Permanent Forum "congratulated" the author of the study and affirmed that "all doctrines, including the doctrine of discovery, that advocate superiority on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust and should be repudiated in word and action."

The 13th Session Final report [UN Doc E/C.19/2014/11] recommended that the Study "be submitted to the President of the General Assembly and to Member States as a reference guide in the discussions relating to the high-level plenary meeting/World Conference on Indigenous Peoples," scheduled for September 2014.

The so-called World Conference on Indigenous Peoples—a misnomer because it was a conference of the General Assembly, not of Indigenous peoples—came and went without a word on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Despite the explicit recommendation of the Permanent Forum, the Study was not discussed and no recommendations for action were issued.

Nonetheless, many observers declared the high-level meeting a "victory" for Indigenous Peoples. It appears that people can be easily confused about the difference between talking and doing. In this case, there wasn't even any talking in the Conference Outcome Document. The study of Christian Discovery fell through the cracks.

The UNPFII Recommendations Database categorizes the 13th Session recommendation as a "method of work" for the President of the General Assembly and the Member States. The "Status of Implementation" shows a blank. The implementation status of earlier recommendations from the 11th Session criticizing the Doctrine and calling for its revocation are shown as "ongoing."

Prior to its 14th Session in May 2015, the UNPFII requested information from member states about their responses to the 13th session. Five states responded: Australia, Denmark and Greenland, Mexico, Paraguay and the United States. Of these, only Paraguay reported any action regarding Indigenous title to lands—the fundamental issue affected by the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. The other respondents discussed various social service programs provided to Indigenous persons.

The Final Report of the 14th Session [UN Doc E/2015/43] did not call attention to this lack of response to the Study and recommendation. In fact, the report "welcome[d] the outcome document" of the high-level meeting, without alluding to the fact that the meeting failed to address the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. The Report reiterated, however, the right of Indigenous Peoples to have a say in the development of their lands.

Tellingly, perhaps, the 14th Session also recognized "the need to reduce the number of recommendations while strengthening the follow-up to and implementation of outstanding recommendations." The Forum pledged to undertake a "reform initiative."

The urgency of Indigenous land title has been increased by the awareness that, as the 14th Session reported, suicide among Native Peoples "is linked to the loss by indigenous peoples of their rights to their lands and territories, natural resources, traditional ways of life and traditional uses of natural resources."

Though the report followed this finding with an array of health-related action proposals, it also called upon "the Envoy of the Secretary-General on Youth … to inform the Forum on progress in that regard at its fifteenth session."

The 15th Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will occur in May 2016. The published agenda opens with "Follow-up to the recommendations of the Permanent Forum: (a) Update on the implementation of the Permanent Forum’s recommendations." After a subsequent "International expert group meeting on the theme 'Indigenous languages: preservation and revitalization,'" the agenda turns to two "Studies prepared by members of the Permanent Forum." The list does not include the Study on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.

In a few weeks, we will know whether the U.N. Permanent Forum has forgotten about the Doctrine of Christian Discovery altogether, or whether it will insist that the question of Indigenous Peoples land rights must include a revocation of the Doctrine and the papal bulls out of which the dominating patterns of the Doctrine emerged.

The United Nations, like its member states, operates a huge bureaucracy, with many cracks for things to fall through. The member states do not regard Indigenous Peoples as full participants in the organization. Moreover, some member states—particularly the United States, have taken steps to draw a line between the rights of Indigenous Peoples and the rights of all peoples. Indeed, the parallel effort to define a "new status" for Indigenous Peoples in the U.N. indicates as much an effort to bury them in a closet as to raise them to full membership in the general body.

The U.S. State Department, at the time the U.S. switched its vote on the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from no to yes, stated the Declaration creates a special category of rights that do not equal full participation in the global community of nations. The State Department went so far as to declare the "federal Indian law" system—based on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery—to be identical to the rights system set forth in the U.N. Declaration.

Putting these developments together—the UNPFII Study on Christian Discovery falling through the cracks and the effort to keep Indigenous Peoples in a subordinate status vis-à-vis states—one may well conclude that Indigenous Peoples' rights are not only still under attack by the colonizer states, but that the terms of the attack have not changed. Indigenous Peoples have a "permanent forum" for their "issues," but their issues are subordinate to the concerns of the states that claim superiority over them.

In Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Marc Antony hides his love of Caesar: "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." The inverse works as well: an enemy may say, "I come to praise, not to bury." Beware protestations of friendliness to Indigenous Peoples…unless they are confirmed by actions.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.