Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples


National governments frequently declare their intentions of settling, once and for all, outstanding land and other claims of their subaltern indigenous populations. Such intentions are often linked to a utopian notion of "security and economic certainty" and the desire to follow through on controversial development projects "held up" by "natives." Indigenous Peoples have their utopian notions as well: self-determination in its accepted meaning under international law, entailing secession from an existing state; reclamation of indigenous cultures; and compensation for past abuses.

Indigenous Peoples often share a colonial legacy of marginalization and dispossession; they struggle to reconcile the usually conflicting demands of tradition and modernity and insist on the recognition of collective rights as a condition of the enjoyment of individual human rights. A comparative review of their situations worldwide shows significant variation in living circumstances between the extremes of say, the East Timorese and their newly declared independence, and the total disenfranchisement of the Amungme of (West) Papua or the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania.

In a broad sense, however, the rights of Indigenous Peoples are increasingly realized as a result of:

a. sustained resistance by the people themselves;

b. the intercession of a concerned and politically motivated international public;

c. the operational directives and lending policies of development agencies that insist upon respect for the rights of minorities;

d. changes of government heralding a review of past practices and making amends through treaties, land rights or reserve demarcation. (The speed of this adjustment varies considerably and the nature of the rapprochement is, of course, different in each case.)

Reconciling the rights of Indigenous Peoples and the interests of the state may lead to apologies and reparations, the provision of special services and infrastructure, or the recognition of property rights. Secession may be the desired outcome of this reconciliation process (as in the case of the referendum in East Timor), but more often than not, self- determination within the framework of an existing state is the realistic compromise. The achievement of harmonious coexistence is an on-going and evolving process -- not a "once and for all" situation.

Strategies for inclusion championed by the Amerindians of Ecuador, the Inuit of Greenland, the Sami of Sweden, or the Maori of New Zealand are benchmarks for the strivings of other Indigenous Peoples. Lessons arising from the establishment of the Inuit state of Nunavut are being analyzed by Indigenous Peoples who wish to replicate their successes.

My examination of Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, then, is in these terms: To what degree does this book address the ways in which states are responding to this global reformulation of policies in relation to Indigenous Peoples?

There is no shortage of expansive texts detailing the appalling victimization of Indigenous Peoples such as the Dinka of Sudan, Yanomami of Brazil, or the San of Botswana. Likewise, the tomes describing the emerging norms pertaining to the rights of Indigenous Peoples in international law are all too numerous. At length we can read the details of the various middle-of-the-road covenants -- the ICCPR, ICESCR, ILO 169, the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, etc. So too can we read about the reasons why countries such as the U.S. or France oppose the self- determination principle inherent in many international documents favoring Indigenous Peoples: the fear of the splintering of nations and loss of control over territories and resources. There are not enough texts, however, on the ways in which states are haphazardly moving away from assimilation (or marginalization) of Indigenous Peoples toward the facilitation of their autonomy -- that "human right" of a first nation. Simply to say that Indigenous Peoples have certain inalienable rights tells us nothing new. We need to understand the successful steps being taken by both Indigenous Peoples and states as they negotiate to overcome the legacy of oppression and injustice so that these strategies might be emulated by others.

To this end, this edited collection is a mixed bag. A lamentable introduction by editor Cynthia Price Cohen stands in stark contrast to a significant number of detailed and compelling papers. Unfortunately, the majority are written by lawyers with little understanding of the cultural context of the indigenous struggle, a concern for this reader. A book entitled Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples must clarify who is indigenous, who is tribal, and who or what constitutes an ethnic minority. The editor, in her introduction, makes indirect reference to her understanding of these matters by describing Indigenous Peoples as "primitive," "uncivilized," or "living in dire poverty," somewhat in line with outdated definitions that identify first peoples as the victims of development and "progress."

The means of selecting case studies is never explained. Case studies from India, Chile, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Sweden are represented; why not Australia, New Zealand or any part of Africa? An index is imperative for a volume such as this. So is a conclusion. Both are lacking.

The book has some highlights, however. The summary of indigenous initiatives at the United Nations and the overview of the history and operations of the International Labor Organization and its work on behalf of Indigenous Peoples are essential reading. On the ethnographic front, a discussion of group rights in Chile, a sensitive piece from Papua New Guinea on the contemporary recognition of customary law, and a review of bilingual education in Nicaragua are all stimulating.

Despite its many shortcomings, this book is a handy resource with a useful appendix of major human rights documents. Between its covers, one can find point by point commentaries on the wording and implications of the Draft Inter-American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the ILO Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. It belongs on the shelf of the serious scholar of indigeny and exogeny.

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