Why would any civilized, United Nations supporting, Human Rights advocating country refuse to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Why have the United States of America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Columbia joined the ranks of Surinam, Guyana, the Russian Federation and several African states led by the relatively new state of Namibia to resist UN General Assembly approval of this Declaration 20 years in the making? Control over natural resources and the wealth they generate for businesses, organized crime and unscrupulous politicians–that’s why.
No this isn’t the usual “I hate or object to business!” screed. This is about the very serious international debate that has gone on for the last thirty years
- whether the world’s indigenous peoples are “peoples;”
- whether they have the right of self-determination,
- whether they have territories that belong to them, and
- whether indigenous peoples as distinct groups of individuals have rights collectively.
In the middle 1980s the United States government, Australia, New Zealand and Canada formed a joint effort to defeat the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples–a document that had just begun to be developed in 1986 under the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples. I became aware of the efforts of these four governments to undermine the United Nations effort when an internal memo from the US Department of the Interior crossed my desk describing the plan. I gave the name “English Speaking Symposium” to the government representatives who met in the various capitols to plot their strategies to undermine the Declaration. They have systematically worked to prevent the Declaration from going forward in a way that recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination, territories, identity as peoples and collective rights.
The United States government (Democrat and Republican), Canadian government (Labor and Conservative), Russian government (autocrat), Namibian government (authoritarian), Columbian government (liberal and conservative) along with the others oppose international recognition of the rights for indigenous peoples otherwise recognized for themselves.
Hypocrisy or greed?
According to the United Nations Development Program 70% of the world’s natural wealth and biodiversity is on or under indigenous peoples’ territories. These are lands generally not occupied by metropolitan populations. They are considered the outback, the deserts, the jungles, the forests, frozen tundra and otherwise “unappealing” lands. But, wait!
These lands have most of the world’s oil and coal (witness the battle for oil in Iraq) The Blackfeet of Canada have some of the riches oil sands in the world along with the Cheyenne sitting on coal and the Kiowa on top of oil in the United States. Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Lands Territory of Australia sit on top of huge deposits of bauxite, essential for fabricating aluminum. The Kanak of New Caledonia have in their territory one-third of the world’s cobalt and the native peoples of the Congo (DRC) also have cobalt — a mineral essential for the manufacture high-tech rockets. Indeed, the governments of Rwanda and Uganda are encouraged to by the United States, Britain and China to use their armies to force the production of coltan in the Congo (DRC) where 80% is mined in the world–this mineral is converted into niobium and tantalum used to make consumer electronics like cell phones, dvd players, computers and game boxes. More than 6 million people have been killed in the Congo for control over diamonds, coltan, cobalt and other minerals useful to the high-tech countries.
The state of Canada under Prime Minister Trudeau in the late 1960s leased virtually all of the lands and minerals in indigenous peoples’ territories to Canadian businesses–leases for 99 years. This is why Canada opposes territorial rights of indigenous peoples. Canada committed a fraud in the sixties that it now wants to protect for the wealth of a few and expense of First Nations.
The United States of America would have serious complications recognizing full indigenous peoples’ authority over their own land and natural resources since about two-thirds of the claimed territory remains contested by indigenous peoples. At the moment, the United States is able to extract uranium (from tribal territories), oil, coal, timber, minerals, and other economically necessary raw materials from tribal territories at virtually no cost, but of great benefit to the US economy. In addition, the extraction of energy resources and other natural resources from other countries for US businesses is made much easier when the US deals with compliant and easy to bribe state government authorities and not with the hundreds and perhaps thousands of indigenous nations that actually have the original rights to those lands and resources.
Russia, Guyana and Suriname have exactly the same interests: lands and natural resource wealth used for the benefit of businesses both domestic and international.
Namibia has a slightly different concern….
The so-called Caprivi Strip known also as Itenge is under violent attack as it seeks to separate itself from Namibia’s control. A strategically important corridor, a convergent region for water and a source of minerals, combine to make this place where several indigenous nations live a place of contention. Namibia is loathed to recognize the right of these indigenous peoples to their own land and their natural wealth when Namibia wants them.
In 1994, several indigenous nations’ delegates initialed the International Covenant on the Rights of Indigenous Nations. In this important document indigenous nations claimed for themselves the responsibility for their own self-determination, territorial claims, natural wealth, collective rights and their identity as peoples. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples currently stuck in the UN General Assembly will very likely not be adopted in the new session of the General Assembly in the Fall of 2007 without the changes sought by the United States, Russia, Canada, Australia and the others. African states are voting en bloc where if one state objects…they all object. Namibia objects.
The world’s indigenous nations ought to ratify their own International Covenant on the Rights of Indigenous Nations and force the various state governments to negotiate with them for access to lands, raw materials and other natural wealth. Instead of stealing the wealth of these nations, states ought to act like adult human beings and not thugs and sit down at the negotiating table with the indigenous nations that actually do have the rights that the states wish to deny.
(c) 2007 Center for World Indigenous Studies
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