When indigenous nations ask that their knowledge, their territories, their way of life receive the respect that all humans expect they ask that other societies act as mature human organisms. For the better part of eight years, indigenous peoples’ representatives to international climate change talks aimed at forging a new treaty have called on states’ representatives and representatives of non-governmental organizations to respect indigenous knowledge systems, territories and the many different ways of life expressed by indigenous societies. That respect has not been forthcoming. As Dina Gilio-Whitaker writes in Indian Country Today there is a general unwillingness by states’ governments to respect indigenous peoples as serious political societies with the capacity to exercise governing powers. Indeed, when the United States government under President Barack Obama decided a little more than a year ago to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (already approved by the UN General Assembly in 2007) Obama’s government noted several reservations limiting that endorsement. The United States is unwilling to accept the principle of “free, prior and informed consent” mentioned three times in the Declaration, as a requirement for applying its laws and regulations to Indian nations and Alaskan and Hawaiian Natives. The reservation once taken in reference to the principle listed in the Declaration basically asserts that no indigenous nations can “veto” decisions taken by the US government even if they do not consent to US actions that affect them.
The “free, prior and informed consent” clause written into the UN Declaration is the most fundamental principle of freedom and democracy that means simply: “we decide.” This is the essence of the self-determination principle (Article 3) in the Declaration that appears in the UN Charter, and virtually all international conventions and agreements between states. Despite this widespread acceptance of the principle of self-determination, the United States of America (whose President Woodrow Wilson introduced the concept at the end of World War I) essentially rejects the operable part of self-determination….the free right to decide the social, economic, political and cultural future without external interference–based on “free, prior and informed consent.” When a nation seeks to formulate its own policies it must exercise the power of decision based on not being coerced, and clear and unbiased information.
For Europe’s Popes, Kings and potentates sovereignty is the word for the authority to rule granted by God rendering the rule absolute. For Indigenous nations in Europe, North America and elsewhere in the world, the simple statement “We Decide!” carries the same weight and authority, but to do so they must decide freely and with prior, informed knowledge.