Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

By Patrick Thornberry | Go to book overview

3

Ambiguous discourses:
indigenous peoples and the
development of international law

Introduction

Discussion of concept and practice on indigenous peoples facilitates responses to the question of whose history is to be recalled from among the infinity available. The retrospective element in the definitions suggests that we should find relevant histories in and beyond the discourses of colonialism; our presumptive universalism suggests that the frame for a search is global. 1 The draft Declaration is replete with historical recollection. The preamble expresses the concern that the peoples have been deprived of their human rights `resulting, inter alia, in . . . colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources'. References in the body of the draft to traditional practices culminate in the full blown demand in Article 26 that historical agreements, etc., between peoples and States must be respected. A degree of schematisation and elision is required in order to tell the story, while some attempt is made to avoid assuming `simple linear continuity' between past and present societies, `romanticized' or otherwise. 2 The ancestors of present indigenous peoples share with ancestors of élites in African and Asian States elements of common experience and common discourses of `otherness'. 3 In the colonial timeframe, for every society that disappeared - `flaking into the earth that nourished it' 4 - another survived, reassembled,

____________________
1
The researches of UN Rapporteur Alfonso Martinez (see chapter 2 in this volume) implicated all continents but found no criterion to distinguish a specific indigenous category in Africa and Asia - `the term “indigenous” - exclusive by definition - is particularly inappropriate in the context of the Afro-Asian problematique and within the framework of United Nations in this field': E/CN.4/Sub.2/1999/20, para. 91. He does not defend `the absurd position' of denying the existence of autochthonous groups on those continents: ibid.
2
Kingsbury, East Asian Challenge, p. 349.
3
B. McGrane, Beyond Anthropology: Society and the Other (New York, Columbia University Press, 1989).
4
D. Mahon, `A disused shed in Co. Wexford', in P. Muldoon (ed.), The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (London, 1986), pp. 296-8.

-61-

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