Redressing Rights: The Indigenous Peoples’ Journey to the United Nations

To best understand the reasons behind Indigenous Peoples’ pursuit of the United Nations, one must revisit the 1920s and the story of Chief Deskeheh of the Haudenosaunee. Chief Deskeheh was the first Indigenous leader who attempted to speak at the League of Nations in Geneva, and he was allowed access because Canada had a seat through the British Empire. Sharon Venne, a Cree attorney and scholar, explains that “under international law, colonisers do not have a right of self-determination, whereas the colonised do…Deskeheh, living within a coloniser state, was able to lobby on the basis of treaties made with his ancestors.” (558). His reason for wanting acceptance from the League of Nations lied within the fact that Indigenous Peoples had historically been organized and self-governing peoples. Other nation-states were recognized as sovereign nations and had trade agreements and rights, and Deskeheh believed Indigenous Peoples should not be the exception to that rule. Although Deskeheh received some support, Canada and Great Britain outright prevented him from appealing to the League of Nations, going as far as directly “attacking the traditional longhouse council” of the Haudenosaunee (Venne 558). Not only did the League refuse to hear him, Canada also went as far as changing the Indian Act in 1927 which stopped Indians from fund-raising or taking legal action against the nation. It was not until a new institution appeared, the United Nations, and 66 years passed before “Indigenous peoples would be able to address an international meeting in [their] own voices.” (Venne 559).

There were several key issues that Indigenous Peoples were hoping to find reparation in by appealing to the United Nations. For one, their struggles had not been the slightest bit alleviated, and they had even worsened in some cases. Venne explained the situation vividly: “Indigenous peoples were being driven from our lands, our resources were being used without our consent, and our treaties were being disregarded by Canada and the United States.” Indigenous Peoples throughout North American banded together to discuss ways to regain their lands and rights while reestablishing treaties. In 1977, they convened at a Non-Governmental Organization held at the United Nations in Geneva. They brought many issues to the table, and “over 100 Indigenous peoples testified about the effects of natural resources exploitation, ‘development’ projects, repression and genocide.” (Venne 559). They rejected the label of minorities and asked to be recognized as people and for the UN to study their problems and struggles. Much of their arguments inspired the reports of José Martinez Cobo who was chosen “to undertake a comprehensive study of the problems of discrimination against Indigenous populations.” (Venne 561). Loosely paraphrased, the reports expressed the Indigenous Peoples’ desires to retain the little land they had left, to being the process of regaining the land wrongfully taken from them, to be recognized as a sovereign nation through means of language and institutions, and to maintain all of the above to be transferred to future generations. Cobo concluded that “the current international instruments did not contain provisions adequate to protect Indigenous peoples,” and therefore a declaration needed to be drafted (Venne 562).

Indigenous Peoples had some key principles underlying their movement. One is the right to self-governance—something all Indigenous Peoples has prior to colonization being forced upon them. When Indigenous Peoples reconvened in Geneva in 1977, they “could not use international mechanisms then in existence to decolonize…because the United States, Canada and other states refused to allow Indigenous peoples to use the UN Committee on Decolonization.” (Venne 564). Essentially, they are barred from many changes due to this one constraint. Another founding principle is the basic rights Indigenous Peoples have been prevented from asserting for many years. They had pushback in this area, too, because “the UN human rights system was set up to deal with the rights of individuals based on the Western model of human rights,” and these definitions are not inclusive of collective rights which is a crucial aspect of many Indigenous cultures (Venne 566). “The Declaration of Principles (Indigenous Draft Principles) was adopted at the Preparatory Meeting of Indigenous Peoples held in Geneva, Switzerland, from 27–31 July 1987,” and there were 22 principles in all submitted (Venne 568). In summary, they included themes such as self-determination, access to and permanent control over aboriginal ancestral-historical territories, rights to share and use land in a collective way, self-governance, restitution for violations of previous treaties, protection of history and culture, trade and relationships between Indigenous communities across the world, and the right to be recognized as subjects of international law.

After the 22 principles were submitted, it was an uphill battle for Indigenous Peoples to ensure they were incorporated into the final declaration. Venne argues that “in some ways, the struggle continues to this day.” (571). While the Indigenous Peoples had been working on their 22 principles, the UN issued Working Group had created their own 7 principles centered on anti-discrimination efforts by giving Indigenous Peoples equal rights and opportunity in political, economic, and social realms. The two approaches, when compared side-by-side, are significantly different in their scopes and overall intent. For example, the first principle of the Working Group “speaks to ‘[t]he right to the full and effective enjoyment of the fundamental rights and freedoms universally recognized in existing international instruments, particularly in the Charter of the United Nations and the International Bill of Human Rights,’” which was addressed in the International Bill of Human Rights, “which is not the primary concern of Indigenous peoples.” (Venne 571-572). The Working Group model also includes an individualistic focus while Indigenous Peoples prefer the collective rights of their nations. When the two principle works were present to the opposite group, there were many confrontations and disagreements. Finally, “the Working Group took up the Indigenous Draft Principles as a starting point for a Draft Declaration.” (Venne 572).

As the Working Group continued the draft in the early 1990s, some states like Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia pushed back on certain concepts like self-determination, ultimately resulting in them removing that section from the draft. This caused an uproar from Indigenous Peoples, and “the five members of the Working Group agreed to accept that Indigenous peoples have a right to self-determination.” (Venne 573). Even after the change, states like Canada misconstrued definitions of the declaration and tried to twist them in a way that still kept rights away from Indigenous Peoples. Finally, the Declaration passed, but it did so with great opposition from Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. These nation-states have consistently sought to undermine the concerns of Indigenous peoples, so it is no coincidence that they continued to do so by opposing the adoption of the UN Declaration. A common theme of denial from these nation states is a struggle with accepting the lawful right of self-determination that Indigenous peoples possess. It is, perhaps, rooted in land and territory disputes because these nations do not want to give the rights of the resources back to a group of people they deem ill-worthy of political recognition. To this day, there are discrepancies over the term “Indigenous” and they are making excuses saying the term is not clearly defined for legal purposes, as well as arguments about how Indigenous rights do not “align” with their political beliefs or constitutions. In conclusion, these country leaders do not want to give up the stolen land and resources and/or deal with the consequences of their historical wrongdoings. It is a small victory that these four countries have since changed their vote in favor of the Declaration, but the work of Indigenous peoples in the UN is far from over.

Works Cited

Venne, Sharon H. “The Road to the United Nations and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Griffith

Law Review 20.3 (2011): 557-77. Print.


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