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February 26, 2010
Indigenous communities struggle for global recognition

An indigenous rights protest. Photo: Flickr user KeithBacongo

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, laying out the fundamental rights of the more than 370 million indigenous people living throughout the world.

The Declaration’s main goals are to protect the traditional lands of indigenous communities, as well as their right to self-government and control over natural resources. It also aims to safeguard cultural independence.

The United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia — the four English-speaking nations with significant indigenous populations — were the only countries to vote against the Declaration. Recently, Australia’s new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reversed this decision and signed the document.

During Worldfocus’ series on Indigenous Cultures, we have shown the severe threats facing native communities across the world. For more on the issue, Jamie Macfarlane interviewed Renee Davis and Tiffany Waters, research associates at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.

Worldfocus: Has the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People made a meaningful difference to the lives of indigenous communities around the globe?

Davis: The Declaration holds meaning in setting a standard of Indigenous sovereignty over their lands and resources and to self determination. However, at this point, the Declaration holds more meaning as a standard to be embraced than a legally enforceable document.

Worldfocus: Why do the United States, Canada and New Zealand refuse to sign the Declaration?

Davis: While Australia has recently overturned their opposition to the Declaration, the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand say they oppose the Declaration for various reasons.

Much of the opposition from the US, Canada, and New Zealand surrounds Articles 3 and 26, in which the inherent right to self-determination and control over Indigenous resources and lands are recognized, and Article 32, in which it is required that the State Government obtain an Indigenous peoples “free and informed consent” before exploiting resources or lands that affect Indigenous peoples.

One analyst, Ronald Kakungulu (2009), has suggested that there is a fundamental reason for opposition that joins these three states: “They have a history of using the now discredited doctrines of discovery and terra nullius (empty land) to grab indigenous people’s lands.”

Worldfocus: How does the treatment of Native Americans in the United States compare to the treatment of indigenous peoples in other English-speaking nations?

Davis: We can’t answer in a “better/worse than” way. Structurally, these States have similar relationships with their indigenous populations: treaties, trust relationships, etc. But there is something that does stand out. Compared to the other English-speaking countries, American Indians have a much greater bureaucratic interface with the federal government, cultivated over the last 40 years of American tribes assuming more functions of the federal government in their own communities.

Worldfocus: Are there examples of Indigenous self-government that you see as models that could be introduced across the world?

Davis: We don’t see one broad model of indigenous self-government that could be applicable worldwide. With so many culturally diverse societies, we can’t expect there to be one single way in which self-government emerges.

A structure of self-governance has to come from within and be built on a peoples own place and culture specific foundations. Thus, we cannot point to one particular group and take them as an example of successful self-government to be applied worldwide.

However, we can look at what qualities and characteristics can facilitate an indigenous nation’s strength: it must build and assert its political authority, formulate its own policies, laws, regulations and standards, and have Indigenous and tribal leaders that can maintain political flexibility and agility in a constantly shifting and changing world.

– Jamie Macfarlane




It would be difficult to top Secretary Says’ ignorance and bigotry, but it is not unusual. While many may not be aware of the systematic theft of indigenous royalties by federal agencies, it is hard not to know about the fact there are treaties that contain ongoing financial and environmental obligations in exchange for ceding territory. It is also impossible to be ignorant of which society is responsible for pollution.

This is not, evidently, enough to dissuade bigots from perpetuating malicious misperceptions.


[…] sure to check out WorldFocus‘ interview with Renee Davis and Tiffany Waters of CWIS about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of […]


[…] soon. Canada’s pledge brings the world one step closer to near-universal recognition of the importance of indigenous rights, though of course the US still holding […]


Third class (indigenous)citizens have very little rights on this planet. They can call themselves anything that they want, but if they want to live in todays society with all of its pluses then they better fit in or be swipe aside. Those who want to live in the 13th century can go live in a cave on some mountain top. The rest of the world wants to have clean water, drive a car, have a computer and the iPod. Most of the Aboriginal groups on this planet do not live on land that containes any form of wealth. Neither oil or gold, but other natural sources. Still it is not usually that an outside government strips the land of its natural resources, it is the locals who want the same goods that they have seen on the village TV. To have those items they will strip the land of anything that can be moved.
In America USA you can find dozens of communities that are in themselves self govern. Many are religious, off the beaten path of the rest of the country they lived in an another century. The problem is that many native tribes refuse to live in this century, except for the hand outs given each month. They govern themselves and live in another part of America across the street from present America.
I seem to remember that it was not too long ago that the French part of Canada lived decades behind the English part of Canada. Unless you lived in a big city your roads were made of pot holes and mud. The French rejected anything that was a hint if English. The were the Indigenous people of North America.


I am surprised that the Government of Canada’s 1995 Inherent Right Policy, which allows for government to government relationships with Aboriginal groups and the recognition of their inherent right to self-government within a constitutional framework, was not highlighted as a broadly applicable approach? A major problem with the UN declaration as it fails to be in the “here and now” in recognizing these modern, negotiated agreements.

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