Center for World Indigenous Studies
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Internationalizing Indian Rights

Published: September 26, 2007, Author: MHirch

Bolivian president Evo Morales, an Aymaran, spoke before the United Nations General Assembly as a head of state. Before speaking Morales met with Haudenosaunee, Oglala Lakota and Cree leaders at a U.N. Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues hosted meeting requested by President Morales. The meeting of Bolivia’s president with Fourth World nation leaders in New York City came within days after the U.N. General Assembly approved the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Assembly of First Nations and the National Congress of American Indians scheduled and convened an international assembly in 1999 to sign a co-operation agreement to “confront common issues such as treaties and protecting native lands from government intrusions.” These rapid-fire events suggest a new effort to internationalize Indian Rights.

An international agreement concluded in August 2007 by nations in Canada’s British Columbia and the USA’s Washington State will establish an international alliance called a United League of Indigenous Nations initialed by representatives from eleven nations. This agreement is aimed at mutual assistance and cooperation particularly in connections with cultural property, trade and treaty rights.

Agreements between Fourth World nations are not new, but the recent events suggest a renewed interest in international cooperation and collaboration. The National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Brotherhood (predecessor to the Assembly of First Nations) concluded agreements of cooperation in 1971 leading to the eventual formation of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in 1977. A similar effort had been undertaken earlier to form the International Indian Treaty Council and the Inuits formed another international body called the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

Notable alliances between Fourth World nations that have endured include the All Indian Pueblo Council and the Haudenosaunee. Treaties and agreements have been struck for mutual support as well as common defense.

The greatest difficulty experienced by Fourth World nations has been sustaining and enforcing treaty agreements. Indian nations in the United States concluded more than 450 treaties with the United States government from 1620 up to the present. The United States has violated virtually all of them. There has been no serious effort at enforcement except occasional appeals to the US court system. Indian nations in Canada have experienced the same pattern of treaty relations with that government. In Mexico, agreements made between Indian nations and the Spanish Crown have frequently been violated and commitments made by the Mexican governments have too often been violated (consider the 1994 repeal of the ejido system of land tenure first established in the Constitution in 1934 that was to guarantee land rights to Indian peoples).

Agreements struck between Fourth World nations have suffered a fate similar to those concluded with Canada, Mexico and the US. Not long after agreements have been made, limited resources, uncertainty about leadership tenure and complicated issue schedules have combined to undermine inter-nation agreements.

International agreements involving Fourth World nations, to be effective, must be specific, contain provisions for successive political administrations, include provisions for enforcement and must be guaranteed by an external party. Without such conditions having been met, Fourth World international agreements will fail to protect and advance the rights of Indian peoples. Such agreements can and will constitute a new body of law in the international arena if and only if Fourth World nations take the initiative todefend and promote such agreements with strict conditions.

President Morales can do more by offering to have Bolivia serve as an external guarantor for Fourth World treaties and agreements. If Bolivia played such a role, then internationalizing Indian Rights will be fully achieved. If Morales can hold onto his seat as President, there is a possibility that this new dimension of international relations can be achieved.

(c) 2007 Center for World Indigenous Studies

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