Articles: Alfred and Corntassel: A decade of rhetoric for indigenous peoples

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Few people may realize that we are living in the United Nations’ (UN) "International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People" (1995 - 2004). The goal stated at the outset of the Indigenous Decade was ambitious: to strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous peoples in the areas of human rights, culture, the environment, development, education, and health. At the close of the Decade this year, the only issues of note are the emptiness of the UN’s rhetoric and the failure of states and international organizations to put indigenous rights into practical effect.

The most pressing objective for indigenous peoples during the Decade was to revise the UN draft "Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples" for ratification by the General Assembly. Mocking the UN’s theme of "Partnership in Action," the ratification of the draft Declaration has been blocked by obstructionist behavior of state representatives in the Intercessional Working Group (especially Canadian Métis Wayne Lord, elected member to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues). Given that the Indigenous Decade is ending with the failure to ratify the draft Declaration, it is fair to question whether significant gains have ever been made, much less over the past 10 years, through activism in global forums?

Indigenous peoples were actively promoting self-determination in global forums long before the establishment of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982. In April 1923, Deskaheh, a Six Nations Cayuga, petitioned the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, through the Government of the Netherlands: "We have exhausted every other recourse for gaining protection of our sovereignty by peaceful means before making this appeal to secure protection through the League of Nations. If this effort on our part shall fail, we shall be compelled to resist by defensive action upon our part this British invasion of our Home-land, for we are determined to live the free people that we were born."

Deskaheh ultimately failed to gain recognition and support for Haudenosaunee sovereignty from members of the League of Nations. Given early unsuccessful efforts by Deskaheh, Maori leader T.W. Ratana and others to secure recognition of indigenous self-determination, how have indigenous peoples fared during the Indigenous Decade?

Since the UN Voluntary Fund for the Indigenous Decade was established in 1993 to finance indigenous activities and programs, only three countries, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark, donate 70 percent of the overall contributions to the Voluntary Fund, amounting to a meager $185,162 in 2003. The United States has not contributed at all, and Canada’s 2003 contribution of $9,747 is ridiculously small in light of Canada’s professed support for indigenous rights. The goals of the Indigenous Decade were clearly undermined by the decision of states to withhold funding.

One of the most significant developments of the Decade was the creation of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by the Economic and Social Council in 2000. This Forum was compromised from the beginning by the refusal of states to approve a "Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples" (our emphasis), fearing that the word "peoples" would imply a recognition of indigenous peoples’ right of self-determination. Also, representatives attending the inaugural meeting of the Forum in New York stressed that the Forum should support research and policymaking in relation to indigenous peoples, rather than be a "house of complaints." Given the severe limitations of the Forum to act against injustices perpetrated against 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide, proposals to structure the Forum as solely a report-writing and data-gathering agency for state governments is tantamount to criminal negligence on the part of the UN.

During the Indigenous Decade, indigenous organizations and individual nations have continued to demonstrate by developing a proliferation of indigenous declarations across a wide range of issues: Indigenous Peoples Seattle Declaration (1999); Baguio Declaration (1999); Declaration of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change (2000); Indigenous Peoples Millennium Conference statement (2001); Declaration and Platform of Action on the occasion of the First Indigenous Women’s Summit of the Americas (2002). However, these declarations are, for the most part, ignored by states because of their political content and non-binding legal status. While declarations generally provide clear statements of indigenous political identity and objectives, the issue is not whether indigenous peoples are capable of stating their position; the issue is how to secure state commitment to achieving indigenous peoples’ rights within the UN. Activities undertaken prior to and during the Indigenous Decade demonstrate that having indigenous issues on the UN agenda is insufficient to ensure the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights.

Other global forums offer some promise. For example, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ recent ruling in The Mayagna (Sumo) Indigenous Community of Awas Tingni v. The Republic of Nicaragua (2001) case provided legal protection against continuing state and corporate encroachment on Mayagna lands. Additionally, 10 countries have ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169 "Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries" (1989) during the Indigenous Decade. The ability of ILO 169 to promote indigenous rights is limited, however, by lack of widespread support and implementation. ILO 169 also domesticates indigenous rights by classifying them as being under the legal authority of state governments.

This review of recent developments on indigenous rights within the UN organization leads us to rethink our approach to bringing indigenous rights concerns to global forums. We suggest a few possible future directions:

* Shift towards engagement and activism in forums similar to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which allows Indigenous leaders to work outside the state-centric confines of the UN;

* Emulate strategies of successful indigenous social movements, such as the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), which represents 80 percent of the indigenous population in Ecuador, and has been successful in decolonizing governmental structures in that region;

* Make indigenous declarations stronger political instruments by having them reflect consensus and unity within indigenous communities, better communicating the meaning of indigenous self-determination, and by articulating strategies to build a new relationship with states;

* Promote unity and strength among indigenous peoples by encouraging renewed treaty making between indigenous nations.

As we reach the end of the Indigenous Decade, the main lesson of the last 10 years has been the need to move beyond all forms of rhetoric and assert our self-determination and connections to the land. Paper rights cannot achieve self-determination, nor can they affect state accountability to moral precepts and international law. Until we act in self-determination to achieve our rights, we will continue to voice our resistance to the state-centric system, just as our ancestors so eloquently did in the past. And like our ancestors, we will continue to see our people abused, our rights denied, and our indigenous existence slip away.

Jeff Corntassel is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He is assistant professor in the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria and his research on indigenous political mobilization and global indigenous rights has been published in Ayaangwaamizin, American Indian Quarterly, Human Rights Quarterly, Nationalism and Ethnic Studies and Social Science Journal.

Taiaiake Alfred is a member of the Mohawk Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. He is the Indigenous Peoples research chair at the University of Victoria, and the author of two books, "Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors" and "Peace, Power, Righteousness."

This article appears here with permission of the authors and was originally published as an editorial in the May 11, 2004 edition of Indian Country Today.