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Rights of Indigenous People
There are approximately 370 million indigenous people spanning 70 countries, worldwide. Historically they have often been dispossessed of their lands, or in the center of conflict for access to valuable resources because of where they live, or, in yet other cases, struggling to live the way they would like. Indeed, indigenous people are often amongst the most disadvantaged people in the world.
This web page has the following sub-sections:
- Who are indigenous people and what makes them different?
- Conflicting Issues such as Environment, “Biopiracy”
- Indigenous people have often had many rights denied
- UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples
- Customary Law—backward or relevant justice systems?
- Indigenous Peoples’ Struggle Around The World
- More Information
Who are indigenous people and what makes them different?
There does not seem to be one definitive definition of indigenous people, but generally indigenous people are those that have historically belonged to a particular region or country, before its colonization or transformation into a nation state, and may have different—often unique—cultural, linguistic, traditional, and other characteristics to those of the dominant culture of that region or state. (For more details, see this fact sheet from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).)
In some parts of the world, they are very few indigenous people, while in other parts, they may number into the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Over the years, many groups of people have been wiped out, either by diseases of colonizing peoples, or through policies of extermination.
Those indigenous societies that remain today are predominantly subsistence-based (i.e. farming or hunting for food for immediate use), and non-urbanized, sometimes nomadic.
Conflicting Issues such as Environment, “Biopiracy”
Some people have been critical of indigenous peoples’ treatment of the environment, noting examples such as the deforestation of Easter Island or the disappearance of large animals from parts of America and Australia caused by native people.
However, others have argued that more generally, many indigenous people, for decades—even centuries—have accumulated important knowledge and traditions that allow them to work with nature rather than destroy it, because they are dependent on it and thus have a sense of interdependence. (See for example, works by Indian scientist and activist, Vandana Shiva.)
In other parts of the world, such as India, Brazil, Thailand, and Malaysia, multinational companies have been accused of participating in “biopiracy” whereby biological resources used by communities openly for generations (decades, centuries, or even millennia in some cases) have been patented away, leaving the local people unable to use their own local plants and other resources. This is discussed further on this site’s article, Food Patents—Stealing Indigenous Knowledge?. For other indigenous people, logging, dam projects and other activities threaten ways of life, sometimes leading to conflict.
The first is a speech (15 minutes, transcript) from Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council that represents more than 150,000 Inuit of Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia. She is a long-time defender of Inuit rights and has been the political spokesperson for the Inuit for more than a decade. She talks about the changes occurring in the Arctic region due to climate change and what that means for the Inuit people. She argues for the “right to be cold”. (This clip is an extract from a Democracy Now show on indigenous people.)
This next clip (1 minute, transcript not yet available) is a short discussion by an Aboriginal elder on how his people are coping with the modern world. (This clip is also an extract from a larger interview (54 minutes) from the Global Oneness Project.)
Indigenous people have often had many rights denied
As the UNPFII notes,
Indigenous peoples around the world have sought recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources; yet throughout history, their rights have been violated. Indigenous peoples are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world today. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.
— About UNPFII/History, United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNFPII), accessed October 16, 2006
Indigenous people have often found their lands and cultures overridden by more dominant societies. During the era of European colonial expansion and imperialism, it was common for Europeans to think of themselves as more superior over others.
Many Europeans at that time saw native peoples from regions such as Africa, Asia and the Americas as “primitives,” or “savages” to be dominated. This would help justify settlement and expansion into those lands, and even slavery. Without civilization these people could be regarded as inferior, and if seen as “non-people” then European colonialists would not be impeding on anyone else’s territory. Instead, they would be settling “virgin territory” (sometimes “discovered”) overcoming numerous challenges they would face with much courage.
Other Europeans saw the same people as perhaps savages, but ones that could be “saved” by being civilized and introduced to Christ. Hence, many European Christian missionaries saw their goal as “civilizing the savages.” (Some of these attitudes still prevail though perhaps not as forthright, or even intentionally, as popular literature of that time that would have depicted non Europeans as inferior or at least to be feared, are still celebrated today. See works by Edward Said for more on this, such as the classic Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979), and Culture and Imperialism, (Vintage Books, 1993).)
Today, celebrations of days such as Columbus Day in the US therefore raise bitter feelings for indigenous people. Interestingly, Christopher Columbus never set foot in the United States, though that day is celebrated there. (Democracy Now! radio show discusses explores this issue in more detail looking at the theme of power and dominance ideology that underpins why this day would still be celebrated.) For people of color and especially native American Indians, Columbus Day causes anger as they object to honoring a man who opened the door to European colonization, the exploitation of native peoples and the slave trade.
Many Europeans and their descendants around the world have tried to look back at history and ask how it was that Europe and the West prospered and rose to such prominence. The late Professor J.M. Blaut accused many historians and others of employing self-congratulation and projecting eurocentric world views, whereby reasons for Europe’s rise were (and still are) attributed to things like favorable conditions for agriculture, for democracy to grow, and for economic superiority to take hold. Race was sometimes claimed to be a factor, too.
Blaut was critical of these and other underlying assumptions and belief systems that guided this view, showing many assumptions to be false, and suggested instead that colonialism and the “discovery” and exploitation of the Americas, with the plunder of silver, gold and other resources helped fund a European rise.
Blaut’s work is presented in two books (though a third was never finished for he passed away), part of a volume called The Colonizer’s Model of the World. His two books are Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (Guilford Press, 1993), and Eight Eurocentric Historians, by J.M. Blaut (Guilford Press, 2000).
It was after World War I and II that movements for indigenous rights starting gaining more traction. Witnessing the immense destruction, violence and barbarism of those wars, colonized people began questioning the European claim that their civilizations were superior and peaceful. Weakened European countries could no longer hold on to their colonies, and a wave of anti-colonial and nationalist movements sprung up as people around the world saw their chance to break free. European countries began conceding territories, and for many indigenous groups, accepted that they should have more rights to determine their own destiny.
Under international law, tribal people, for example, do have some recognized rights. The two most important laws about tribal peoples are Conventions 107 and 169 under the International Labor Organization (ILO), part of the UN system.
Survival International, a prominent organization that presses for the rights of tribal peoples, summarizes that
These conventions obliges governments to identify the lands and protect these rights… It ensures recognition of tribal peoples’ cultural and social practices, obliges governments to consult with tribal peoples about laws affecting them, guarantees respect for tribal peoples’ customs, and calls for protection of their natural resources.
— International Law, Survival International, undated
The struggle for such rights is still not over. Many governments routinely violate the rights of indigenous people. A slow process is, however, raising hope for a more comprehensive set of rights, although some major countries are still against some particular aspects.
UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples
After taking more than 20 years to draft and agree, on June 29, 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted the U.N. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Declaration emphasizes the right of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in accordance with their aspirations and needs.
Although it would not be legally binding if it were ever adopted by the General Assembly, indigenous communities around the world have pressed hard for this and have felt that the adoption of the declaration will help indigenous people in their efforts against discrimination, racism, oppression, marginalization and exploitation.
Major Countries Opposed to Various Rights for Indigenous Peoples
The process to draft the aforementioned declaration moved very slowly, not because of some imagined slowness and inefficiencies of an over-sized bureaucracy, but because of concerns expressed by particular countries at some of the core provisions of the draft declaration, especially the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples and the control over natural resources existing on indigenous peoples’ traditional lands.
Some historically and currently powerful countries have been opposed to various rights and provisions for indigenous peoples, because of the implications to their territory, or because it would tacitly recognize they have been involved in major injustices during periods of colonialism and imperialism. Giving such people’s the ability to regain some lost land, for example, would be politically explosive.
Inter Press Service (IPS) notes, for example, that countries such as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, have all been opposed to this declaration. These countries have noted in a joint statement that “No government can accept the notion of creating different classes of citizens.”
Furthermore, as IPS also noted, the delegation claimed that the indigenous land claims ignore current reality “by appearing to require the recognition to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens.”
The problem with the delegations’ views are that they ignore historical reality. To say that “creating different classes of citizens” is objectionable does sound fair. However, in this case, different classes were created from the very beginning as indigenous people were cleared off their lands and either treated as second class citizens, or, not even considered to be citizens in the first place. Many of these laws then, were often made by a society that never recognized or accepted that such people had rights, and so the law only applied to the new dominant society, not the original people.
There are of course complications to this. For example, there is often a contentious debate about whether some European settlers colonized land that was not inhabited before, or were used by nomadic people, in which case European settlers could argue (from their perspective) that the land was not properly settled. Also, European settlers can also note that sometimes agreements were made with indigenous people to obtain certain lands, but it is also contentious as to whether all these agreements would have been made fairly, as some were made at gun point, while other agreements were achieved through deception and various forms of manipulation.
Survival International criticizes Britain and France, of being opposed to some aspects of rights for indigenous peoples, as well as the United States. These two countries, formerly commanding vast empires and colonies have also subjected native peoples to cruel denial of rights and oppression.
A key part of the declaration has been the “collective” right of indigenous peoples, for they are seen by many indigenous communities as “essential for the integrity, survival and well-being of our distinct nations and communities. They are inseparably linked to our cultures, spirituality and worldviews. They are also critical to the exercise and enjoyment of the rights of indigenous individuals.” (Letter from 40 indigenous peoples’ organizations to Tony Blair, September 2004, quoted by the above-mentioned article from Survival International.)
A reason such countries may be opposed to collective rights is that it implies land and resource rights, whereas supporting only individual rights would not. Collective rights could therefore threaten access to valuable resources if they cannot be exploited, or if they are used for, and by, the indigenous communities.
As Survival International also notes, individual rights is sometimes an alien concept to some societies, and it can be easier to exploit individuals than a collective people:
Full collective rights over land and resources are essential for the survival of tribal peoples. The Yanomami of Amazonia, for example, live in large communal houses called yanos. The concept of ‘individual ownership’ of such a building is nonsensical. A tribe’s right to decide, for example, whether a mining company should be allowed to operate on its land, also only makes sense as a collective right. The UK claims, however, that these vital collective rights should be individual rights ‘exercised collectively.’ In the USA, the infamous Dawes Act of 1887 demonstrated the danger of this approach. The Act turned communally-held Indian lands into individual plots; 90 million acres of Indian land were removed at a stroke, and the reservations were broken up.
— UK Government blocks historic UN Declaration, Survival International, February 1, 2005
When interviewed in the above-mentioned IPS article, Stephen Corry, director of Survival International noted,
The imperial era was largely based on the dispossession of most of the world’s indigenous people … It cannot be considered over until the world accepts these peoples’ rights.
— Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, interviewed by Haider Rizvi, UN Faces Test on Native Rights, Inter Press Service, October 13, 2006
Setback: draft Declaration opposed/delayed by a UN General Assembly subsidiary in November 2006
A set-back for adoption of this declaration came at the end of November 2006 when, somewhat unexpectedly, a subsidiary body of the U.N. General Assembly rejected the draft declaration, proposing more time for further discussion.
As reported by IPS (previous link), some African countries who had previously supported the declaration this time raised concerns about the phrase “right to self-determination” because much of Africa is considered indigenous and they feared unwanted rebellions by some groups within their borders.
Some indigenous leaders, disappointed by this, claimed it was pressure from US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others opposed to the declaration, that had lobbied for this position, behind the scenes.
IPS also added that, “The U.S. and its allies argue that the declaration is ‘inconsistent with international law.’ The U.S. has also repeatedly held that the indigenous land claim ignores current reality by ‘appearing to require the recognition to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens.’”
What the US position seems to ignore is that many lands now “lawfully owned”, have been based on an initial theft from others. As detailed further above and summarized here:
- Historically, conquering societies have created arguments and moral justifications for their approaches.
- Some have included views that the former people living in the conquered lands were not “civilized” (they were “savages” etc), and had no concept of individual property rights, etc and so they never “owned” the lands they lived in
- Therefore it was seen as okay to claim the “unoccupied” or “unowned” land as their own.
- Furthermore, this subtle imposition of the outsider’s culture, practices and norms onto other cultures (to whom many facets may be alien or alternative to their ways) when used in this manner, is coercive and denies them rights, while transferring them to the newcomers instead.
- And so, if ever the formerly dispossessed people attempt to regain some of what they unfairly lost, then it will be countered by such technicalities.
In the case of the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, they have, in theory, an enormous amount to lose if this declaration ever became a stepping stone to monumental indigenous claims, and therefore it is resisted.
(The resolution for amendments to the draft was endorsed by 82 countries. 67 voted against it, and 25 abstained.)
As another IPS report notes, while disappointed with the recent vote, many still feel the declaration is powerful and positive, even in draft form. For example, it had a strong endorsement from the UN Human Rights Council and the draft “was the basis for the formulation of the Indigenous People’s Rights Act in the Philippines, and it has been used as a framework for changing constitutions in Latin America” notes an interviewed activist.
However, Amnesty International fears the delay could result in a weaker draft declaration, fearing an attempt to reword parts of the declaration for future adoption, and warned that any rewording must be fully transparent, allowing all stakeholders to continue to participate.
Massachusetts-based Cultural Survival, an organization campaigning for indigenous rights around the world, shares these concerns and is very critical of larger states’ lobbying of smaller states to vote against this declaration. They felt it was a tactic to ultimately kill the declaration:
Packaged as a mere delay, the vote received no press coverage or wider attention. In fact, the tactic was designed to kill the declaration. No regular sessions of the General Assembly are scheduled after mid-December, and there is no budget authorized for a special session. Moreover, there is nothing in the resolution that would ensure indigenous peoples’ participation in the committee’s deliberations.
Why was the declaration shot down? At least some African states are concerned that it does not define “indigenous” and that it supports “self-determination” for indigenous peoples. Those states take the view that all Africans are indigenous, and that self-determination—one of the key points of the declaration—only applies to nations trying to free themselves from the yoke of colonialism. While fair concerns, the declaration, which is not legally binding, is clear that the meaning of these terms must be defined in context and negotiated between indigenous peoples and the state in which they live.
But the real impetus behind the initiative came from the same very powerful states that have objected all along. What they don’t like is the language in the declaration that gives indigenous peoples rights to their lands and resources, and ensures their free, prior, and informed consent before those rights are impeded upon.
— UN General Assembly Declines Vote on Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Cultural Survival, December 4, 2006
Declaration Adopted By UN General Assembly, September 2007
Despite the above concerns, the UN General Assembly eventually adopted the declaration on September 13, 2007. Predictably, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States voted against the declaration when 143 nations voted in favor of it.
Opposing countries rethinking their stance?
In October 2010, Inter Press Service reports that the four opposers to the declaration have all been rethinking their stance: “[Australia and New Zealand] have since reversed their positions and, in March, Canada announced its intention to change its position. Around the same time, the U.S. also decided to undertake a review of its position.”
11 countries also abstained at the time. Two of those, IPS also added, have since endorsed it: Colombia and Samoa.
Customary Law—backward or relevant justice systems?
Many indigenous cultures having developed their own societal traditions and norms naturally have ways to deal with crimes. Various anthropologists and others have noted some interesting differences between some traditional systems of justice and modern law. Guisela Mayén provides a useful summary:
indigenous law consists of a series of unwritten oral principles that are abided by and socially accepted by a specific community. Although these norms may vary from one community to another, they are all based on the idea of recommending appropriate behavior rather than on prohibition.
… customary indigenous law aims to restore the harmony and balance in a community; it is essentially collective in nature, whereas the Western judicial system is based on individualism. Customary law is based on the principle that the wrongdoer must compensate his or her victim for the harm that has been done so that he or she can be reinserted into the community, whereas the Western system seeks punishment.
— Guisela Mayén, quoted by Louisa Reynolds, Mayan law still lacks official recognition, Latin America Press, October 6, 2006
Rachel Sieder, quoted in the same article notes that such laws are not fixed; they adapt to circumstances, but also adds that it isn’t necessarily worse or better than the western approach, just different.
As the above cited article also exemplifies, many indigenous systems are often not recognized officially, even in countries with large indigenous populations. “Ethnocentrism” is also practiced sometimes, when some societies look at indigenous systems as backward or barbaric.
Anthropologists such as Richard Robbins (see for example, his book Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 2002, 2005), Jared Diamonds (see for example, Guns, Germs and Steel, (W.W. Norton and Co., 1997) make observations that in hunter-gather societies that pre-date our agricultural-based civilizations, the need for official systems of justice was not necessary. We sometimes view such systems as barbaric, backward and non-civilized, as we tend to view it through our civilization lens.
However, these systems—not necessarily peaceful in some romantic way—were, however, effective. For example, there was tacit knowledge that committing certain crimes would not be wise to do because the perpetrator would likely be cast out of the tribe or group, which in some ways would certainly be as bad as a prison sentence. In addition, because people would tend to know each other personally, there would be less tendency to commit many types of crimes we are familiar with today. In our societies of large populations where we are likely to know hardly anyone (comparatively), a more formal system of rules of law tends to work well.
In the United Kingdom recently, there has been much made about overflowing prisons, the problem of violent youth, even overflowing youth detention centers. A number of considerations in recent years has also been to put in place “anti social behavior orders” (ASBO’s) whereby attempts are made to keep people in the communities but be visibly punished or restricted in some way.
This technique being tried in UK has certainly come under criticism and it is by no means certain that it will work in the long run, but that different attempts are being considered does show that in a way then, there some a commonality with the more indigenous systems, suggesting that indeed indigenous systems are not necessarily bad, and there may be a place for various alternatives in modern society as well.
In addition, as Mayén’s article also notes, about the Mayan people in Latin American countries such as Guatemala, such indigenous systems may indeed be very relevant for such large indigenous populations.
In various countries in Africa, traditional systems of justice have often helped people come to term with conflict as part of a rebuilding process. Truth and reconciliation commissions, such as the well-known one in South Africa have bought victims and perpetrators together.
Truth commissions attempt to establish what happened, why, by whom, and may even include provisions for amnesty, forgiveness, or appropriate justice, all in the hope that “never again” should such gross human rights abuses occur. Victims get the chance to be heard and perpetrators have the opportunity to reintegrate back into society without the fear of backlash. In Africa, there have been commissions in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also hinted at the prospect of truth commissions.
These systems are not perfect, as sometimes war criminals may get off lighter than expected.
A visit to South Africa revealed to me that indeed there were some African people unhappy that some people from the apartheid regime had been spared prison or other forms of punishment and even had gone on to create wealthy businesses while their victims continued to suffer the effects of their harsh treatment at the time.
For example, there were moving stories from former political prisoners in South Africa, including one who was with Nelson Mandela, whereby their white prison guards were forgiven for many crimes committed on them, only to find that the guards had since gone on to make a lot of money in new business ventures. In the meanwhile, the prisoner had remained in poverty, continuing to suffer from the effects of the beatings and other damage received while in prison—without any compensation. There are many individual stories like this, not just from prisoners. However, as Robert Rotberg noted in Truth vs Justice, these were part of a set of compromises that was felt would be needed to forge a successful multiracial society.
In Rwanda, following the genocide, the sheer number of cases to be tried through retributive justice could not cope, so a traditional system—usually limited to small minor disputes—was incorporated as well, called gacaca, based more on restorative justice, whereby elements of leniency for admitting crimes, reparations to victims, and apology were essential. While this has helped, some people are still bitter, as these systems are not perfect. Yet, the traditional system has been seen as more citizen-based, while the official tribunal system is seen as remote and disconnected from local people. The tribunal has been left for those who planned the genocide and other such officials. The Rwandan experience with truth and reconciliation is explored in more detail on this site’s section on Rwanda.
Sierra Leone, another country recovering from immense violence has also seen mixed results from such commissions, and Lyn Graybill and Kimberly Lanegran survey these in detail, and conclude that there should be guarded optimism for such transitional justice systems:
South Africa’s TRC appears to be making a lesser contribution to interpersonal reconciliation than to national unity…. the interpretations of “the truth” revealed by a process like South Africa’s truth commission must be regarded as one set of voices among many others.… Both the ICTR and gacaca will fall short of hastening full reconciliation which Rwandans need to avoid future violence, but [there is hope] that Rwandans will receive some measure of justice. Similarly, … Sierra Leone’s truth commission has struggled to fulfill its objectives and appears to have made limited contributions to addressing the needs of its major stakeholder groups. Amputees, for example, regard reparations as the single most important component of justice for them, but the truth commission can only make recommendations to Sierra Leone’s government for appropriate payments for victims. None of … these experiments in transitional justice have been irrelevant or total failures, but all do call for modest expectations and rigorous evaluation of the actual results.
— Lyn Graybill and Kimberly Lanegran, Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation in Africa: Issues and Cases, African Studies Quarterly, (University of Florida), Volume 8, Issue 1, Fall 2004
Indigenous Peoples’ Struggle Around The World
The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) has for years worked on these issues. Their world reports detail issues and struggles for indigenous people around the world. Their 570-page report for 2006, The Indigenous World 2006 , for example, details the following areas:
- The Circumpolar North
- The Arctic Council
- Sápmi in Norway and Finland
- Alaska (USA)
- Arctic Canada
- North America
- United States of America
- Mexico and Central America
- South America
- Australia and the Pacific
- The Islands of the Pacific
- West Papua
- East and Southeast Asia
- South Asia
- Middle East
- The Marsh Dwellers of Iraq
- The Bedouins of Israel
- North and West Africa
- The Amazigh people of Morocco
- The Touareg People
- The Horn of Africa and East Africa
- Central Africa, Cameroon and Gabon
- The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
- Republic of Congo (Congo Brazaville)
- Southern Africa
- South Africa
The above only scratches at the surface of the issues. For more detail, consider the following as useful starting points:
- United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
- Survival International
- Inter Press Service’s coverage of indigenous peoples’ issues
- From OneWorld.net:
- International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs