What the UN Declaration Means

by Rudolph Ryser

It is our observation at the Center that there are from 6,000 to 7,000 nations that speak original languages and generally occupy territories in virtually every continent in the world. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) claims that indigenous peoples come from some 70 countries and have a combined population of some 370 million. The PFII has a fairly limited interpretation of who are the indigenous peoples.

In the Peoples Republic of China alone there are nearly 300 million indigenous people—not counting the dominant Han. In northeastern India—in the so-called tribals area-there are more than 25 million not to mention the millions more indigenous people living in the subcontinent proper. There are more than 11 million Mayan related peoples in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The PFII is not apparently conscious of the different peoples in Eurasia (Komi, Evenk, Even, Chuckchi, etc.) or the more than 129 indigenous nations in Europe. We have estimated the number of people who might be identified as indigenous people world-wide at a minimum of 750 million and perhaps as many as a billion. This number may be too small.

All indigenous populations are located inside the boundaries of existing states (we don't use the inaccurate term "nation-state" since there are really only a few such states in the world—Vanuatu for example. The United States, Brazil or Australia are not nations, but rather they are actually states. A nation is "a people" that shares a
common culture and/or language, heritage, history, etc. Alas, the United States is a state with decedents of settlers and immigrants established on top of the territories of the original nations. A modern state originates with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 when the Catholic Church defined the state as having a centralized authority that is "sovereign," has recognized boundaries, exercises universal laws within those boundaries, has a policing force or military, and is an entity recognized by other states.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is properly referred to as a "Declaration." Just as the United Nations adopted the University Human Rights Declaration December 10, 1948 it has now adopted a Declaration concerning the rights of indigenous peoples. The United Nations uses such "declarations" as a device to facilitate international consensus on a controversial topic. "Declarations" are used to education and change opinion, or focus attention on a subject to elevate it to a level of international importance. The present UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a statement of "minimal standards" and specifically states that it is not intended to limit present or future rights. What this means is that the international community is now encouraged to
formulate new international laws based on the principles contained in the Declaration. States' governments are encouraged to adopt new domestic legislation that takes into account the principles contained in this Declaration. Indigenous nations are encouraged to adopt new laws that take into account the principles contained in this Declaration.

In other words, the UN Declaration is a statement of principles on which there is wide consensus. It does not confer rights or authorities, it merely notes that the principles best state the international community's understanding of the standards that should guide formulation of new international law and conduct. A great deal
of work lays ahead to give meaning to the principles on which consensus has been established.

In 1994 I served a a Special Rapporteur in the development and initialing of the International Covenant on the Rights of Indigenous Nations. This document has been circulating in the indigenous world ever since as a commitment between nations.

I look upon the Declaration (on which I worked with perhaps a thousand other people from 1985 onward) as a very minor first step toward a much more fruitful, but difficult period of political conflict between indigenous nations and states' governments. The central conflict is over land (wealth) and control (power). The United States and Canada have objected to the "consent clause" in the present Declaration and as these terms were promoted because they assume original ownership of territories and resources in indigenous peoples. This requires that each state "negotiate" in good faith with indigenous populations over access to land and resources the state assumes it already owns by virtue of it's state identity. This rather weak state claim is only challenged by indigenous peoples and their original occupation of territories predating the existence of the state.

I anticipate a major struggle between nations and states over control and use of lands and resources. Violence has been the response of many states or their surrogates (corporations or militias) to indigenous nations obstructing access to land and resources (oil, timber, gold, diamonds, bauxite, and you name it). The whole "terrorist" conflict appears to be transforming into the nation and state conflict. Nations will need to carefully advance their political power to avoid the violence. It is already apparent with the conflicts raging in the world involving "tribes" (read: Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Sudan-Darfur, Bruma-Karen, Indonesia-West Papua, Nigeria-Ijaw, Russia-Chechnya, etc) that "oil" is a major bone of contention. The UN General Assembly's adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples signals the expansion of land and resource wars between states and nations. It is to be hoped that negotiations informed by a better understanding of Fourth World Geopolitics will be substituted for violence. War will be evidence of human failure.


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