During the last forty years since the UN Commission on Human Rights designated José Martinez Cobo as the Special Rapporteur responsible for conducting the “Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations,” and the nearly thirty years since the establishment of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations a small collection of cultural mediators from indigenous communities around the world have built a large body of law and literature aimed at restoring the position of indigenous peoples in the family of peoples. That position was largely diminished and even submerged as the globalization movement led by European and Asian colonialism spread throughout the world beginning in the sixteenth century.
Some of us have been promoting the concept of convening a world congress of nations and states to negotiate and establish new international rules of conduct for relations between indigenous nations and the now established international states. In 1993, the Center for World Indigenous Studies proposed convening such a “Congress of Nations and States” to the recently collapsed Russian government and the governments of Germany, Japan and the United States as well as ten indigenous nations including the San Blas Kuna, Haudenosaunee, Tibet, Lummi, and the Sami. Our efforts were quickly embraced by the Russian and German governments and the indigenous nations also agreed. Japan was reluctant and wanted to wait to see what the United States government said it would do. After numerous meetings and finally a meeting in the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. where representatives of the four states’ governments met with me representing the Center for World Indigenous Studies the possibility of convening a Congress of Nations and States under the guidance of a four state/ten indigenous nations steering body seemed well on its way. All parties except Japan and the United States seemed on board, and without much notice, the US Department of State signaled that the US could not agree to the Congress. To seal the sudden death of this hopeful process that had begun in the Spring of 1992 the Department of State Legal Affairs office dispatched a cable to Moscow saying the United States would not agree to the meeting of indigenous nations and states’ governments.
Perhaps the Congress of Nations and States was premature.
Now, however, there is new life to the idea that indigenous nations and states’ governments should meet and discuss protocols and procedures for implementing principles presented in the articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Cobo Study took ten years to complete. The UN Working Group began its work in 1982, but only began working on what would become the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 1986. That Declaration was finally agreed to by the UN General Assembly in 2007. In the mean time indigenous peoples’ issues have been embedded in numerous new international legal instruments and declarations including the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, the Convention on Biodiversity, and the Convention on Intellectual Property.
A “World Indigenous Peoples’ Conference” was offered by the Gover
The UN Information Agency stated in its 16 November release that the Social, Humanitarian & Cultural Committee (the Third Committee) adopted a resolution proposing that the UN will sponsor a “World Indigenous Peoples’ Conference” scheduled to convene in 2014. The Conference purpose is to: “adopt measures to pursue the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The Committee requested the President of the General Assembly to begin consultations with member states to define the procedures and organization of the conference. The Third Committee’s resolution will appear on the UN General Assemblies agenda in mid-December, and request has been made that the resolution be adopted by consensus of the body.
The original nineteen co-sponsoring states’ governments of the Third
Committee resolution included: Argentina, Australia, Benin, Bolivia
(Plurinational State of), Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic,
Ecuador, El Salvador, Finland, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico,
Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
The United States, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil gave favorable attention to the resolution and may become co-sponsors
even as Great Britain reluctantly said it would support the
resolution with major reservations. Great Britain said its support
was subject to limiting the principle of “collective rights” to
domestic state law regulation despite recognition of the principle
in international law in such instruments as the UN Declaration on
the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The British “reservation” sounds much like the language of earlier objections to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United States and Canada.
Despite the wrinkles pushed up by Great Britain, the World Indigenous Peoples Conference is nevertheless a very hopeful prospect. The government of Bolivia and her cosponsors should be congratulated for their courage and foresight.
Indigenous nations must now step “up to the plate” to begin offering suggestions and proposals for procedures, topics, and goals. These should be offered to the UN and to states’ governments. This will be a major test for the indigenous nations of North America…particularly those inside the US. Now would be a good time to form a Nation/State World Indigenous Peoples Conference Steering Committee responsible for facilitating the organization of this conference. The move by Bolivia and her sister states has to be considered a serious invitation to indigenous nations. It is a serious invitation to states. Both must now get serious about clarifying how they will implement the UN Declaration within the framework of a congress of nations and states. A World Indigenous Peoples’ Conference in 2014 is needed.
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