Academic journal article Global Governance

The Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Closing a Gap in Global Governance

Academic journal article Global Governance

The Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Closing a Gap in Global Governance

Article excerpt

The year 2004 marked the end of the first International Decade of the World's Indigenous People proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Although the achievements of the decade are mixed, it capped a long struggle for the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples (IPs) in the international system within the framework of the UN Human Rights Commission (HRC). (1) The UN recognizes indigenous peoples as having the following: priority with respect to the occupation and use of a specific territory; the voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness; self-identification, as well as recognition by others as a distinct collectivity; and an experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion, or discrimination. In most instances, who are and who are not indigenous is fairly clear-cut, but there are borderline and ambiguous cases that may be controversial in some countries. The concern over the rights of IPs arises because of a history of systematic and persistent violations of their rights by states, public institutions, private corporations, and members of the dominant society.

Formal interest in indigenous issues began in the early 1980s when the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities decided to establish the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP). Its annual session is the occasion for several hundred representatives of indigenous organizations from around the world to meet, exchange information, get to know the UN system, and present their various human rights claims and demands to an international audience. The principal outcome of these debates has been the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which should have been adopted by the General Assembly before the end of the international decade. Even though this declaration, if adopted, would not be legally binding on states, government delegations have not been able to reach a consensus on the text. Indigenous organizations consider it to be an aspirational document that they hope is part of emerging international "customary law" regarding indigenous peoples. Frustrated at the slow progress on this draft declaration in the Human Rights Commission, several indigenous representatives staged a hunger strike at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva in November 2004.

There is no internationally agreed legal definition of indigenous peoples. (2) Because the right of peoples to self-determination is set out clearly in basic UN human rights covenants and usually relates to liberation struggles, secession, and political independence of colonial territories, states have been reluctant to recognize this right as pertaining to IPs. However, the current claims by IPs are only the latest instance of applying this century-old principle to the expanding debate about human rights. In sociological and historical perspective, the term peoples or nations has been applied to indigenous populations in many different contexts. (3) Formal definitions are more common in national legislation, but the lack of adequate legal provisions has led to violations of the human rights of some 300 to 400 million IPs throughout the world.

For most IPs, survival is the major challenge in a world that has systematically denied them the means and thus the right to existence as such. Historically linked to the land as the source of their main livelihood, from which they have been systematically dispossessed for centuries, IPs have long struggled to gain, recover, and keep access to what is an essential element of their identity as distinct cultures and societies. Land rights are the major issue faced by native peoples around the world, and they are at the center of numerous conflicts involving indigenous communities, particularly as a result of globalization. Current neoliberal development policies, instead of helping indigenous farmers and hunter-gatherers to strengthen their local economies, have in fact pushed many of them off the land. …

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