By Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today
Nations around the world are failing to meet the standards they set for themselves in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The agreement took some 25 years of diplomacy, negotiations back and forth, defining words, until finally a document was produced that 144 of the world’s nations agreed to sign on September 13, 2007. That is except the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Those four nations considered the declaration for a few more years. The United States gave its agreement in December 2010 under the Obama administration.
The challenge of any international standard is implementation. Experts (when they are generous) call that a work in progress.
Yet the declaration laid bare the hopes of Indigenous people from around the world, such as the Maasai of Tanzania; the Lani of West Papua, Malaysia; the Khasi of India as well as the Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Denmark.
The declaration codified the right to language, tradition and cultural identity. It sent a message to world governments that Indigenous people have a right to be distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic, social and cultural development. Not only did the pact outlaw discrimination, it required Free, Informed and Prior Consent before any development can begin.
Dalee Sambo Dorough, Inupiaq, is chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a multi-national nonprofit representing some 165,000 Inuit across the Arctic, including the Russian Far East, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. She was a guest Tuesday on Indian Country Today.
She calls the declaration “one of the most comprehensive international instruments affirming the rights of Indigenous peoples across the globe.”
Perhaps the pinnacle of how the document could work would be in Bolivia.
Victoria Tauli-Corpus, of the Kankana-ey Igorot people of the Philippines, was a U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People from 2014 to 2020. In a video in 2017 she praised Bolivia for amending its constitution, adoption of the declaration as national law, and election of an Indigenous person as president.
But other governments in the world continue to fall short.
Many experts said President Donald Trump’s executive order three years ago on the Dakota Access Pipeline disregarded the very concept of Free, Informed Prior Consent.
Today a marriage of ideals and law is what is needed to achieve reconciliation and healing, said Wilton Littlechild, Cree, of Alberta, Canada, speaking at a U.N. forum. He said the declaration ought to be a road map.
“For Indigenous law or tradition to fly, it’s like an eagle, the eagle with its two wings to fly, one wing could be carrying a treaty, the other wing the declaration. And the treaty and declaration working together makes Indigenous law fly.”
The Canadian Friends Service Committee has described conditions such as discrimination, dispossession of Indigenous lands and resources, forced assimilation, and other human rights abuses. Participants in UN discussions ask for nations to respect Indigenous peoples’ rights to water, to food, and to land, as well as human rights and self determination.
The significance of the declaration has only grown because of the changing conditions in the Arctic due to climate change, said Sambo Dorough.
She said communities in the Arctic are experiencing coastal erosion, increased shipping vessel traffic and other issues related to climate. Some countries and businesses see this as an opportunity for more development.
“That's kind of akin to the nature of human rights that everything is interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible. And if you toy with one issue or one area, it affects the whole. And that's what we're certainly seeing in the context of climate change and its impacts, which are more dramatic and happening much faster in the Arctic region and the Antarctic region,” Sambo Dorough said. “And so it just means that we have to be ever more vigilant about the rights that are affirmed in the UN declaration and our right to participate directly in all matters that affect us, including issues related to defense and national security, and especially how we govern.”
Sambo Dorough said the Inuit Circumpolar Council has been working to bring the concepts of the declaration into practice. The pandemic has slowed those efforts.
Joaqlin Estus is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today. Based in Anchorage, she’s a longtime Alaska journalist.
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