Territorial autonomy remains key after a century of indigenous demands at the UN
August 10, 2017.- Today we celebrate that 10 years ago the most advanced and comprehensive instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), was adopted. Almost 100 years after the first indigenous demand in the United Nations system, the indigenous struggle continues at the forefront of global challenges.
In 1923, Deskaheh, the Iroquois indigenous leader of Canada became the first man in the world to take his claim for the recognition of indigenous rights to the United Nations (back then the League of Nations). His request was simple and clear: to live under indigenous laws and faith on their own territory. Although he spent more than one year in Europe, he was not officially welcomed and his claims were not heard. Deskaheh died in 1925 in the United States, after Canada denied his re-entry to the country. Now almost a century after, the responses indigenous peoples receive are still not as different as those back in the 1920s.
Some analysts assure that we are witnessing an indigenous century. This momentum does not seem to be just an aspiration of those working with indigenous rights or a mere chance, but rather statistics are showing the world's indigenous peoples at the forefront of global struggles key to our planet. A fact that is not isolated.
According to an interactive report from Global Witness, more than 100 environmental activists have been killed so far in 2017 and indigenous communities are at the top the of list suffering from the expansion of extractive industries.
Only in 2015, a third of the murders related to territorial defense were indigenous leaders from Latin America. This escalation of violence is not accidental, given the fact that indigenous territories are the richest in biodiversity.
Precisely because of this threat, the article on land rights is the most important achievement contained in the Declaration we are honouring today. This article recognises indigenous peoples’ collective and inalienable right to the ownership, use and control of lands, territories and other natural resources. Here is where the greatest battle lies. Regardless regional differences, indigenous peoples today are threatened by the relentless advance of infrastructure megaprojects, extractive industries and large-scale agriculture. All these activities promise a prosperous future, but they usually end in forced evictions, criminalization of leaders and serious violations of human rights. In the name of conservation and development, the least responsible are the hardest hit.
An effort that forged a declaration for more than 370 million people
It is paradoxical that a demand almost 100 years old has become the last body of legislation in international law. The Declaration gravitated 20 years of discussion in the former Commission on Human Rights to become a reality.
Undoubtedly, this instrument marked a before and after in the life of indigenous peoples. It was not enough for them to be enshrined as subjects of international law, but for the first time in the history of the United Nations, the beneficiaries themselves were those who negotiated and constructed one of the human rights instruments with more international consensus.
Today the Declaration is the legitimate source of reference to demand the obligations of the states. In this long process, the tenacity of indigenous peoples has been the key to demanding what it has always been denied to them. Ten years later, the result is immense: legal instruments to protect their right to participate in all decisions that concern them.
A slow but steady pace: A history of participation and recognition
Change is often said to be driven from the margins. The history of how indigenous peoples have conquered spaces within the United Nations system accounts for this.
It was with the effervescence of the 1970s that the indigenous movement took a new impulse and made it clear that the struggle for indigenous rights could not only be in the hands of national states. Thanks to the support of several international organisations such as IWGIA, the international human rights system took a significant leap forward: it left behind an integrationist approach and finally recognized the paradigm of collective self-determination.
At its most basic, this meant that indigenous peoples could talk, prepare documents and make proposals at the UN. From now on more indigenous organizations and leaders begin to participate in meetings and studies on their rights. The meaning of the discussions changed completely and left a mark for human rights defenders. As if this were not enough, this meant preserving indigenous identities and cultures as societies.
But the Declaration has not been the only victory. The indigenous movement achieved its own Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2000), its Special Rapporteur (2001), the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and its World Conference (2014).
In the last decade, indigenous’ strong stance made their legal status better understood and accepted by member states and other key actors. It is also encouraging to see that countries that have voted against the Declaration today have revised their positions and publicly declared their support (Canada, Australia, New Zeland and United States).
Several other positive trends make us think that we are on the right track. The rise of autonomous indigenous governments in Latin America, official apologies and reconciliation plans in Canada, greater general political participation, and increasing media coverage are encouraging.
The UN as springboard to territorial autonomy
Forging an international declaration has been more than a proof that indigenous peoples are capable of uniting global efforts to drive democratic change. These are efforts that guide the steps for genuine decolonization.
But battles won on paper do not guarantee automatic changes. The daily reality of indigenous communities shows that they are still under great pressure. Shrinking space for indigenous activism and the criminalization of their protests is directly threatening their way of life. The murder of the indigenous activist Berta Cáceres has undoubtedly been a wake-up call on this harsh reality.
The fundamental prerequisite for indigenous peoples to retain their identity and develop their autonomy is the right to define the scope and direction of development activities within their territories.
What is needed then? A Declaration is a universal responsibility that includes us all: states, indigenous organizations, financial institutions, the private sector, conservation organizations, academia, the media and NGOs.
As long as the exploration and exploitation of natural resources continue to expand, indigenous peoples will continue to be the most affected. The only action to safeguard their rights is for states to enter into a multicultural dialogue to achieve fair negotiations based on acquired rights.
This specifically requires legal reforms with political will, technical capacity and financial commitment. At the same time recall the goal with which the Declaration was designed: the urgent need to overcome and repair a historical denial of fundamental rights.
This struggle does not call for making real special rights, but inalienable human rights as it is to be owners of our own destiny.
Today we celebrate having the Declaration as a remedy and compass that guides all our efforts.