All the treaties between the United States and Indian tribes are binding international agreements, yet international institutions formed to serve modern states and mediate international disputes require that original nations like Indian tribes in the Americas first exhaust remedies established by and for the states within which they exist–an inherent conflict of interest. Nevertheless, that remedy has long been exhausted throughout the Americas, especially in Canada and the US, and the time has come for international bodies to step into the fray.
Indeed, some have already condemned nation-states of the Americas for institutional racism and other violations of international human rights law. With the evidence of genocide and ethnic cleansing practiced by these states over the last century alone, judgments by international courts and commissions are bound to follow, but what will these entail in terms of enforceable remedies?
Judging by the hostile response of Canada, Mexico and the US to exposure of crimes against humanity by agents of their respective federal governments, we can only expect continued official harassment of whistle-blowers and active suppression of this sordid story. So where does that leave us in implementing a 21st century human rights regime? How do we get to truth and reconciliation? How do we remedy past injustice and prevent its recurrence in the future? What can we achieve in the present?
Given the ongoing betrayal of treaties and trust agreements throughout North America, it is not surprising that some tribes in Canada are mirroring those of Oaxaca, Mexico through the use of direct action to bring the unsatisfactory situation to international attention. Over the last year, highways and railroad lines have been blockaded by First Nations in British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario. Meanwhile, the Blackfeet of Montana proved systematic embezzlement of American Indian resource royalties by the US Department of Interior only to have a federal court tell them, “So what”.
Indigenous tribes of Bolivia now have a government that acknowledges and supports their inherent rights as aboriginal peoples, and is finally using that country’s assets to benefit them. In fact, they are directly involved in revising Bolivia’s constitution, as well as in official acts to redistribute the wealth that was originally theirs alone. Indeed, the entire process of governance is being democratized in ways corporate-controlled Americans can hardly imagine.
But Bolivians were not handed this power over their lives by the landed aristocracy or the US corporations that helped them steal the indigenous wealth in the past. Rather, it was the indigenous people themselves who decided they’d had enough, and took to the streets to put an end to the infamy that plagued their lands.
North American Indians are not in a numerically strong position as the indigenous of Bolivia are, but they are in a morally and legally superior position to the states of Canada, Mexico and the US, and in the end that is likely to be the key to victory over corporate autocracy and official corruption. They will, no doubt, need some help from mainstream civil society to implement economic security and environmental sanity, but the leadership on human equality is theirs to take, and they are apparently headed in that direction. It now remains for the rest of us to decide whose side we are on; fence-sitting is going to become increasingly hard to pull off with a clear conscience.
(Jay Taber is a political analyst and strategist at Public Good Project.)
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