by Rhodri C. Williams
The Ninth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) was launched in New York on 19 April and concludes this Friday. The meeting opened with a bit of virtual reality, in the form of a screening of Avatar (all of James Cameron’s good intentions aside, beginning a conference by handing out 3-D glasses is a bit hard to square with the gravity of the issues at stake), but was then bolstered by the real life breakthrough of New Zealand’s decision to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As reported by Pana:
[UN Secretary General] Ban, addressing the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, called on all governments, indigenous peoples, the UN system and all other partners “to ensure that the vision behind the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples becomes a reality for all”.
Ban’s call comes as New Zealand announced on Monday that it would reverse its decision and support the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.
New Zealand was one of four countries — the others being Australia, Canada and the United States — that voted against the Declaration in 2007. Australia, however, reversed its decision last year.
The theme for this year’s meeting is “development with culture and identity” based on Articles 3 and 32 of the Declaration. The official background memo on this topic rightly describes the way in which dominant development paradigms have in the past led to encroachment on indigenous lands in order to extract greater up-front value from them (whether through mining natural resources or, as in the case of Kenya’s Endorois people, through creating nature and game reserves). It also sets out some useful prescriptions, including recognition of the sustainability of many forms of indigenous stewardship of natural resources and greater collaboration between indigenous groups, civil society and public authorities.
At the same time, in an era of ginger but steady economic recovery and in the absence of broadly viable alternative economic models, the insistence of the background document that the old wisdoms are irretrievably damaged seems a bit labored and possibly counterproductive:
The failure of the dominant development paradigm, as evidenced by the lingering global economic crisis, the environmental crisis of climate change and the erosion of biological diversity, signals the need to evolve alternative ways of thinking about and pursuing development.
Such formulations implicitly bypass the great reform/revolution question (e.g. can one best effect change by working within the system or attempting to replace it?) and assume the necessity of revolution. An alternative approach might be to simply restate the goals that most states have already signed on to through endorsement of the Declaration – and to focus on ways in which they can be given effect under the prevailing political and economic circumstances, rather than present them as both instrumental in (and therefore implicitly contingent on) an unlikely transformation of these circumstances. I suspect I am being a bit bourgeois here, but I wonder if it would not make sense to see if one is pushing on any open doors before deciding to completely refurnish the house.
With that said however, it will be very interesting to see where the conclusions of this session go, particularly in light of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights recent adoption, in the Endorois case, of an argument developed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights: namely, that indigenous title to land translates into the real political bargaining power necessary for indigenous groups to be able to genuinely negotiate their future with and within states. The background document for the current session of the UNPFII clearly incorporates this approach to internal self-determination:
Development with culture and identity is characterized by a holistic approach that seeks to build on collective rights, security and greater control and self-governance of lands, territories and resources. It builds on tradition, with respect for ancestors, but is also forward-looking. It includes social, cultural, political and spiritual systems.
In light of the fundamental threats many indigenous groups continue to face as a result of encroachment and climate change, achieving territorial recognition and meaningful internal self-determination will remain an enormous challenge. Let us hope that the current session of the UNPFII lends impetus to developing international understandings of indigenous rights that may provide a bit more leverage in regional and national advocacy efforts to give them content.