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Vocabulary of Indigenous Autonomy – Governance

The words we use to discuss the political future of indigenous nations is changing. A new discussion about indigenous nation governance is moving to the international table: UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. 2014

Discussions about the "situation of indigenous peoples" began at the UN Commission on Human Rights (early 1970s) in a formal way resulting in a 10 year study by Dr. José Martinez entitled "Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations, Final Report" (1981). That action started the modern international discussion and beginning development of a new vocabulary describing the position of indigenous nations in the international community. The UN commissioned a five-member Working Group on Indigenous Populations (1982-1993) that began conducting two-week sessions at the Palaise de Nacion in Geneva, Switzerland to examine and consider testimony concerning "the situation of indigenous peoples" from representatives of indigenous peoples and indigenous governments, non-governmental organizations, UN specialized agencies and eventually representatives of states' governments. By 1985 the Working Group decided that it must draft a new declaration concerning the rights of indigenous peoples for consideration by a Sub-Commission and then UN Human Rights Council and ultimately the UN General Assembly.

By 2007 (September 13) the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples had been adjusted and revised from the original work of the Working Group to ensure agreement among member UN States the resulting Declaration won 144 states' government votes with four states (United States of America, Australia, New Zealand and Canada [What I have dubbed the "English Speaking Symposium"]) opposed and the remainder abstained. While the UN Declaration version agreed to in 2007 fails to contain all the language desired by indigenous peoples' representatives, it never-the-less puts in place a new rash of vocabulary that now specifically attaches to the interests of indigenous nations the world over. That, by itself, has created the beginnings of an international and domestic state dialogue that is slowly gaining steam.

The good efforts of Bolivia's President Evo Morales (Aymara) added a new wrinkle to the previous conversation leading up to the UN Declaration by causing the UN General Assembly to become the host for a global conference (World Conference on Indigenous Peoples) that makes a tiny step forward promoting indigenous nation/states' government dialogue. Such a small beginning has the potential to broaden the discussion into a debate and perhaps negotiations that will see provisions and mandates of the UN Declaration implemented.

The dialogue essentially begins in May 2014 when the 13th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues [UNPFII] convenes to address its special theme: Principles of good governance consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: articles 3 to 6 and 46.

Perhaps the single most direct UN Declaration provision dealing with governance is Article 4 which reads: Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.  The key word here is autonomous.

Indigenous governments (constitutional and customary) from throughout the world will likely converge on New York City to offer their views on the rights of self-determination, rights to self-government and autonomy, and the powers of indigenous government.

Just as the Cobo Study, Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples introduced new vocabulary to the discussions about indigenous peoples the UN Permanent Forum's discussion of good governance in connection with indigenous peoples will launch a discussion that will cause debate leading into the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples concerning indigenous governments. It is slowly becoming apparent to increasing numbers of people that to implement any provisions or mandates written into the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a political threshold must be overcome: Recognizing the governing authorities and institutions of indigenous nations and establishing an intergovernmental framework between indigenous governments and states' governments.

To simply discuss "indigenous peoples RIGHTS" is to place virtually all of the decision-making authority and responsibility into the hands of states' governments and their leaders. RIGHTS are "granted" whereas "POWERS of government" are inherent and exercised. The power to decide must be the underlying theme of efforts to implement the UN Declaration. The vocabulary of governance changes the discussion from granting rights or recognizing rights of peoples to nations and states debating and negotiating the exercise of power by their governments. Indigenous governments, constitutionally established and established through custom, exercise inherent powers that states' governments wish to ignore, but if conflicts between indigenous nations and internationally formed and recognized states are to be avoided or redirected into mutually acceptable and peaceful directions there must be mutual recognition of indigenous and states' governing authorities. Once there is a mutually establish intergovernmental framework it becomes possible to discuss, debate and negotiate how each of the governments will exercise powers over land, resources, people an virtually all life supporting systems. Until there is a mutual agreement on indigenous and states' governance issues such as climate change, food distribution, resource extraction, the application of traditional and conventional knowledge to strategies for human benefit and the distribution of knowledge, wealth and technology will remain uneven and stalled to the disadvantage of all humanity.

Conflicts now raging in the world involving such as Pashtunistan and NATO countries (Afghanistan and Pakistan), the indigenous peoples in Yemen, South Sudan, Sudan, Central Republic of Africa, Columbia, Palestine, Bedouins and Israel; Philippines, Indonesia (Borneo, Sumatra, West Papua), Bangladesh (Chittagong Hill Tracks), India (Naga, Kashmir), and in New Caledonia will remain unresolved.  Only mutual recognition of governing authorities with a working intergovernmental framework will make discussion, debate and negotiations possible between the parties.

The vocabulary of relations between Indigenous nations and States' governments is necessarily shifting from the generalized usage of indigenous peoples to indigenous constitutional and customary governments. This is a necessary next step toward realizing the day with indigenous nations and states engage in mutually determined negotiations to address the needs and interests of humanity as well as their specific peoples. Indigenous peoples have RIGHTS whereas Indigenous Nations exercise POWER.  There is a big difference.  the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues may, indeed, provide the place where the discussion begins in earnest and indigenous nations may begin to see the light at the end of the long historic tunnel where they move from subjects of states' governments to mutually recognized governments exercising their essential powers as autonomous nations.

The year 2014 may be the beginning of the great dialogue about governance!

One Trackback

  1. By Fourth World on January 1, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    […] his op-ed on the vocabulary of indigenous autonomy, CWIS Chair Rudolph C. Ryser explains the difference between the rights of peoples and the exercise […]

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