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The “Right” in “Indigenous Rights”

Published: May 5, 2011, Author: Rÿser Rudolph C.

Since the Fall of 2007 many have celebrated the UN General Assembly’s decision to endorse the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The governments of fifteen states either abstained or openly rejected the Declaration. China, the Russian Federation and the United States of America–three of the original UN organizing powers–chose to reject either by abstention or objection the body of principles developed and negotiated over a period of twenty years from 1986.

Why did these “veto wielding” states take such an obviously negative position regarding an obviously favored affirmation of human rights extended to marginalized populations?  While none of these oppositional states revealed their reasoning–for it is likely their actual positions would either offend popular sensibilities or these negative positions might reveal substantial political weakness–their opposition seemed utterly contrary to the spirit of the United Nations and its announced goal favoring global comity.

China seems to have abstained due to its fear of Tibet. Though Tibet has worked mightly to avoid being referred to as an “indigenous people” preferring instead to be known as an emerging “nation” Tibet poses a serious strategic threat to the central authority of China.  Tibet sits on the border of states that have threatened China.  It has therefore served as a “buffer” to perceived and actual threats.  China is also worried about the Uygurs of its far west flank.  Uygurs have their territory split between China and the Russian Federation and they consider the “Han” their mortal enemies. The Manchurians of the far northeast raise a similar border concern since they, along with Tibet and the Uygurs formed a short lived alliance some many years ago as they all seek separation from China.  Not wanting to call attention to its weakness, China chose to abstain and not oppose the Declaration to avoid controversy.

The Russian Federation has a similar, but much more complicated problem with “indigenous populations” inside its territory. Russians occupy a “minority” space in the Russian Federation.  By this I mean Russians are mainly located in an around St. Petersburg and Moscow and from those locations they trickle out along the east west rail line.  Indigenous peoples like the Komi, Sakah, Even, Nentsy, Tatars, Chechens, and Ingushitians actually occupy most of what Russia calls its territory and virtually all of the valued natural resources. Many of these peoples–notably the Chechens–have not been eager to remain a part of Russia.  Indeed, since the indigenous peoples of Russia actually have in their territories most of the natural wealth (timber, minerals, oil, etc) inside their territories Russia needs their territories more than it needs their people.  If the Chechens (who declared their independence in 1991) achieved their political goal many others would seek to join the “train out of town.”  Russia has used authoritarian and dictatorial rule to keep control over vast wealth that has mainly benefited Russians at the expense of indigenous peoples.  The Russian government does not want to call attention to this very serious weakness in its strategic profile so it abstained.

The United States government, long the “champion of human rights in the UN” has openly and quietly opposed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from the very beginning of efforts to develop it.  It was not, therefore, surprising that the “English Speaking Consortium” of the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia stepped forward as the most notable opponents openly oppositing the Declaration in 2007.  The United States is “wobbly” about indigenous peoples having international standing since much of US claimed territory remains largely contested by indigenous peoples.  “Land Rights” or land claims remain unresolved after wars between the US and Indian nations, land confiscations by the US, land annexations by the US and broken treaties mainly by the US.  The UN declaration challenges the US to restore the balance by recognizing the “rights of indigenous peoples,” but to do so the US would have to relinquish control over territories it stole.  The US is openly opposed to recognizing the right of indigenous peoples to “free, prior and informed consent” calling that right a “virtual veto” power.  Being a letigious country, the US fully understands thatq the exercise of this right to consent on the basis of prior knowledge also means to withhold consent knowing the adverse consequences of a decision.  The US fears indigenous peoples’ decisions based on informed consent.  The US fears that indigenous peoples will want their land and resources back, which would put a “monkey wrench” in the corporate exploitation of oil, timber, minerals, natural gas, and water in indigenous peoples’ territories. This is a weakness the US government does not want to expose.

Recognizing the “right” is not the same thing as “exercising the power” implied by a “right.” But, recognizing a “right” does mean that all parties must engage in discussions like adults to resolve any differences that a previously unablanced relationship might have created.  There are very real differences between indigenous peoples and the governments of Russia, China and the United States.  These differences are not resolved and continue to fester.  The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a pathway for resolving differences and establishing comity so that those who wrongly acquired the wealth and resources of indigenous peoples can restore the balance so that benefits from wealth and resources can flow to the rightful owners.

Comity to ensure the full exercise of “indigneous peoples’ rights” as human beings is a difficult “pill to swallow” for those who covet the wealth of indigenous peoples.

It is time that China, Russia and the United States stop equivicating and instead join indigenous peoples at the negotiating table to begin resolving the longstanding differences.  It is time that states’ governments openly recognize that indigenous peoples are “peoples” and they are a political and strategic reality that must become part of the human family.  The UN Declaration is a tiny step in the direction of achieving that important goal.

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