On September 13, 2007 the United Nations (UN) embraced an international instrument entitled the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Consisting of 46 articles, this document was created to protect and promote the rights of the worlds’ indigenous populations that were not defended in other human rights legislation (University of British Columbia, indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca). James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, claims this document is unparalleled in its scope and breadth. Therefore, this paper will discuss the history and reasoning behind the declaration’s creation, why it was necessary to adopt and the reasons why Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand initially rejected the proposal before eventually deciding to support it.
Instituted in 1945, the UN’s purpose and perception is striving to obtain and maintain the human rights, freedoms, cultural stability, social mobility and equality for all the world’s inhabitants. For the first several decades of this organization’s existence, the concerns and issues associated with the world’s indigenous population went largely unheard. As more than 370 million global citizens from more than 90 nations, are classified as indigenous, which means these people were present before other settlers arrived and then were dominated by the newcomers, it is of paramount importance the voices of these people must be heard
(The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat (DESA), un.org.). Many continue to be subjugated through numerous social, political and economic measures. In fact, experts estimate of the 7,000 languages spoken on this planet, more than 4,000 of them are uttered by indigenous residents and that up to 90 percent of those languages could cease to exist by the end of the century (DESA, un.org).
Since the earliest days of colonization and/or imperialism, indigenous people have a documented history of battling against, cooperating or interacting with a more dominant group of people that arrived on their lands. Their persistence to retain their culture and freedoms has also been noted in addition to their being recognized as sovereign people through treaties in nations such as the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. According to DESA, in 1923, Cayuga Chief Deskaheh of the Iroquois Six Nations, traveled to the League of Nations in Geneva to present the complications facing his people. He was ignored for an entire year and ultimately returned home after gaining some popularity for his cause in Europe (DESA, un.org). His efforts were replicated by W.T. Ratana, a Maori religious leader from New Zealand in 1925 and the impact from this journey largely mirrored that of Deskaheh’s (DESA, un.org).
The rights of indigenous peoples continued to be classified as insignificant at the international level until the 1960s and 1970s with the formation of a multitude of civil rights groups by indigenous peoples themselves. An example of these efforts would be the American Indian Movement, which participated in an armed standoff with the United States government at Wounded Knee in South Dakota for 71 days (Chertoff, theatlantic.com). Chertoff discusses how when one of the leaders of the movement, Russell Means, died in 2012, it calls into question why this civil rights movement faded into the background and the rights of the Native American
population in the United States still do not gain the recognition they deserve (Chertoff, theatlantic.com). This is an outstanding example of what indigenous people have faced all over the world. Fortunately for indigenous groups in other nations, the United Nations began to take note of indigenous rights as organizations formed for that purpose began to speak out and direct attention to their issues. Since the creation of the Martinez Cobo study, headed by the Special Rapporteur of the same name for the United Nations Sub-Committee on Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities, the process of what would eventually result in the UNDRIP commenced. This study’s purpose was to explore the discrimination of indigenous peoples around the world at a time when they were gathering to protect themselves in many other nations besides the United States (DESA, un.org).
As the world has advanced technologically, socially, politically and culturally through the onset of globalization, oddly enough the plight of indigenous people and the eradication of discrimination against them has not improved. Although imperialism effectively was terminated shortly after the end of World War II, the effects and impact of this scourge of history persists. For instance, Australia’s policies towards their indigenous or Aboriginal peoples has been classified as genocide and condemned by the UN as violations of every international human rights treaty in the history of that organization (Malkin, telegraph.co.uk). According to Finkel (nationalgeographic.com), the Aboriginal population of Australia was present for nearly 50,000 prior to the landing of Englishman James Cook in 1770. There were once 250 distinct Aboriginal dialects, but many of those have ceased to exist today as only half a million of these people, less than 3 percent of Australia’s total population, remain (Finkel, nationalgeographic.com). In Finkel’s opinion (nationalgeographic.com), over the last several centuries the British Crown and
Australia itself implemented policies that destroyed the Aboriginals through massacre, integration, mass removal and forced alcoholism. Australia also conducted a policy during the 1940s and 1950s were Aboriginal children were taken from their families, supposedly to live with foster families to improve their lives. They were never returned and often were beaten, raped and forced into servitude (Stone, wsws.org).
The current conditions of Australia’s indigenous people is deplorable at best. Stone’s (wsws.org) research reveals heart disease, diabetes and cancer have increased at a steady rate amongst this population for thirty years. Life expectancy for both males and females is 10-15 years less than other Australians. Twenty-two percent of all Aboriginals are unemployed compared to a total Australian unemployment rate of 8.1 and they compose 14 percent of Australia’s total prison population (Stone, wsws.org). In 2007, the Northern Territory Emergency Response was instituted in 73 aboriginal communities to essentially limit alcoholism, child abuse and crime. Its stated purpose was to equalize discrimination in employment and education, but in fact the Aboriginals claim it stripped them of their human rights because only their population segment was targeted, not other Australian citizens (Stone, wsws.org).
Another example of why preservation of the rights of indigenous people around the world remains so important today, is Canada’s treatment of their aboriginal people. De Souza (reuters.com) explains how a report conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released on June 3, 2015 classifies the residential school system the nation employed from 1840 into the 1990s amounted to cultural genocide. This commission was actually created as a response of a settlement with the survivors of this policy who are struggling to deal with their lives in the aftermath of the trauma they experienced. After six years of research, the
Commission found Canada’s policy was genocide because it was implemented to utterly destroy any identification with our practice of Aboriginal cultures (De Souza, reuters.com).
More than 150,000 children were taken from their families from the age of 5 and older to attend these schools were they would learn to assimilate in society as Canadians rather than what indigenous group they were a part of. These schools were operated by Christian churches and the report documents rape, malnutrition and various other atrocities inflicted on these children. In fact, between five and seven percent of the children attended these schools died, but the figures could be much higher as the government could only discover 3,200 graves (De Souza, reuters.com). Although then Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to all Aboriginal people in 2008, the relationship between the government and its native population has been strained (De Souza, reuters.com).
In 2013, Fontaine and Farber published part of a letter they sent to James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in which they claimed the Canadian government should be cited for numerous violations of the 1948 Convention on Genocide (Fontaine and Farber, theglobeandmail.com). They insist the Canadian schools are only component of a program instituted to destroy all Aboriginal people or what they refer to as First Nations people. The say the behavior of the Canadian government to kill their native population commenced with the first Prime Minister’s action to starve First Nation peoples by not allowing them access to their hunting grounds or supply routes, then placing them on reservations with no food, was to remove them for White westward expansion (Fontaine and Farber, theglobeandmail.com).
The article then goes on to discuss the residential school system before continuing with the “Sixties Scoop” (Fontaine and Farber, theglobeandmail.com). This term refers to a situation during that decade when the residential school system was phased out and the Canadian government felt Aboriginal children would be better served to be placed in the public education system. What transpired, however, was the government entering reservations and taking children from their mothers without their consent, sometimes, shortly after birth to be placed with Euro-Canadian families in a type of foster care that was operated under the child welfare system. In fact, 70 percent of these children were placed in non-Aboriginal homes and were often told they were of European descent. Their true identity was never revealed. They also suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse (University of British Columbia, indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca).
The Sixties Scoop did not officially end until the end of the 1980s when after several reports and studies, it was determined the policy was not effective and did indeed discriminate against Aboriginal people. It was not until 1990 when Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAP) implemented legislation allowing the native population to some control of their child welfare affairs by placing power for programs with the provincial governments. The impact of the Sixties Scoop, however, still remains problematic as a 2008 study illustrated 51 percent of all British Columbian children in the child welfare system were Aboriginal, yet they represent only eight percent of the population (University of British Columbia, indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca).
higher incidence of disease, lack of employment, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse and poor educational quality versus other Canadian citizens. They are also incarcerated more frequently, subject to systemic poverty, exposed to crime and suffer identity crisis from the denial of their culture from the previous system (De Souza, reuters.com). In fact, De Souza reports while the study was being presented, the body present voted to institute 94 provisions to rectify the past wrongs to Aboriginal people and put programs in place to preserve and promote their rights. He claims there was tremendous support for implementing the UNDRIP in Canada (De Souza, reuters.com).
Despite not being chronicled in as much depth as the Canadian and Australian situations, the United States and New Zealand have also been highly criticized internationally for their behavior towards their native populations (Lithopoulos, publicsafety.gc.ca). The situation in the United States is such they have also been accused of genocide and according to Lithopoulos, (publicsafety.gc.ca) Native Americans and Alaskan native populations account for only .9 percent of nation’s civilian tally. The large majority of these individuals, 1.4 million according to Lithopoulos (publicsafety.gc.ca) reside on reservations and do not have access to high quality healthcare, jobs or education. Although the United States government has issued public apologies to Native Americans and attempted to update its Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide more equality to these people, these rights and freedoms are still lacking. In addition, throughout the history of the United States, the Native American population was virtually exterminated so the government could possess their land for colonial settlement. They also employed the same type of school system Canada enforced and never really moved forward on equality after AIM
lost power in 1973. This country certainly has not been a shining example when it comes to treatment of its indigenous population.
New Zealand also has a history of discrimination against its indigenous people. Its situation with the Maori, which was supposedly resolved with the Treaty of Waitangi, yet this remains contentious. The Maori claim the treaty does not involve them ceding their sovereign status to the national government. Naturally, the government does not feel the same. Although it was hailed as a shining example of progress towards equality of indigenous people, this treaty still does eradicate the years of racial discrimination, such as the denial of quality health care, the New Zealand government instituted to control these native lands (Solomon, nzetc.victoria.ac.nz).
What all four of these nations chronicled share is their rejection of the UNDRIP. While 11 nations did abstain in the original vote, these are the only four nations that refused to approve the document in comparison to the 143 other nations that embraced it (DESA, un.org). All four countries could have radically improved their positions on human rights in the international community, not only because of their past abuses, but admittedly they all represent the top twenty most powerful nations in the world. Although three nations, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, have since approved UNDRIP, all four countries rejected it initially because of fears over the rights of self-determination and land claims for native people. They claimed the governments now owned specific land through the various treaties they all established over the course of time and these people were not a special group separate from any other citizen of their nation. Over the ensuing years, the United States, New Zealand and Australia have joined the international community in supporting UNDRIP after their contentions over these clauses were largely ignored and derided, but they did not resolve their problems with
it until 2014. Canada, however, remains the sole nation to oppose the implementation of the declaration. They claim the wording of “free, prior and uninformed consent” is in direct contradiction to Canadian law and provides the Aboriginal people with a veto power that would be illegal within their borders (Lum, huffingtonpost.ca).
The previous rejection of UNDRIP by the United States, New Zealand and Australia and the present refusal of the Canadian government to adopt it, illustrate how true Anaya’s words are and the import for the protection of the rights of more than 370 million global residents. Three hundred years after imperialism first gripped this world, the effects of its damage, destruction and hierarchy still persist. Ironically, all four of these nations, who are very powerful in the present international structure politically and economically, were colonized by Great Britain. The imperialist policies of subjugation, domination, discrimination and genocide where inherited through English systems instituted in their colonies. Since these polices persist in our modern, globalized world, it only proves UNDRIP is a valuable document and a landmark in protecting the rights of indigenous people, because the institutions and behavior of acquiring or maintaining empire by squashing other people remain alive and well to this day.
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