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UNDRIP, CANZUS, and indigenous rights

By Katherine Smits and Stephen Winter


In recent weeks, the Global Indigenous Preparatory Conference for the United Nations High Level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly convened in Alta, Norway and released its comprehensive ‘Outcome Document’. The document has met with resounding indifference. That result might have been expected. For while indigenous representatives and international bureaucrats have developed a customary practice of international assembly and proclamation, what they say in New York, Geneva, or wherever has little consequence for, and less effect upon, most indigenous peoples in the places where they actually live and work.

In marking International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on the 9th of August, we should reflect critically upon the significance of international indigenous politics. To illustrate, if we consider the sacred text of international indigeneity, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, questions remain as to whether this document is worth the energy expended upon it.

Of course, one can exaggerate UNDRIP’s limitations, but these are particularly apparent in the so-called ‘CANZUS’ group of Anglo-settler democracies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States). These states all voted against the Declaration in 2007 and then subsequently endorsed it, Australia in 2009 and the rest in 2010. Each of those endorsements emphasized that UNDRIP is an aspirational document that would inspire but not change the legal, economic, social, or political circumstance of indigenous peoples.

It comes as no surprise then to find that the UNDRIP and other international statements on the subject — not to mention days of celebration — have not substantially influenced the agendas of indigenous politics in the settler states. Rather, the political claims of indigenous peoples and state responses to them are shaped by particular politics, histories, and institutions.

In Australia, for example, the federal government’s response to the abuse and neglect of children in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has dominated indigenous politics since 2007. The conservative government of John Howard introduced the Northern Territory Intervention, sending armed forces into indigenous communities as part of an ‘Emergency Response.’ This highly controversial policy has been continued in only slightly modified form under Labor. Critics claim that the policy denies the autonomy of indigenous Australians and constitutes an attempt, in the guise of protecting human rights, to re-enforce federal control over Aboriginal land in the wake of the 1992 Mabo decision.

Australia: Aboriginal Culture 002. Photo by Steve Evans from Citizen of the World.  Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.
Australia: Aboriginal Culture 002. Photo by Steve Evans from Citizen of the World. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

In New Zealand, indigenous politics are driven by the institutional processes of the Waitangi Tribunal, which hears the claims of Māori and recommends on them based on the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty is interpreted to guarantee Māori control over Māori affairs, but in a manner which falls short of complete self-determination. Intertwined with Treaty politics are the politics of Māori political representation, both the guaranteed seven Māori electoral seats in New Zealand’s parliament and the Māori Party (currently in coalition with the conservative, National-led government).

Turning to North America, in Canada the unfolding Indian Residential School Settlements Agreement, and in particular the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission, dominates indigenous politics. Canada’s TRC is investigating the legacy of the residential school system through which the government forcibly removed indigenous children and incarcerated them within a systemically abusive, underfunded, and assimilative education system.

And finally, in the United States, a polity with a constitutional allergy to international institutions, indigenous politics remain, as they have been for some time, oriented around and within particular tribal relationships. The struggles to gain recognition as peoples, to secure fair terms of economic and political existence, and to flourish in the future are carried out within the frameworks of local, state, and federal politics.

Looking at the primary engines of indigenous politics in the CANZUS group, it is clear that global indigenous institutions play merely supportive roles. Moreover, although academics and indigenous elites discuss global ‘norms of indigeneity’ and the benefits of global communications, strategy-formation and mutual moral support, there is an inevitable tension between global focus and the lived experience of indigenous peoples in terms of their local connections to land, community, and political institutions. Indigenous politics are fundamentally national, or even sub-national, politics as indigenous people define themselves in terms of particular political struggles in postcolonial states.

In light of those thoughts, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and similar events serve a salutary hortatory purpose by reminding us of the moral values and principles that underlie indigenous political claims. However, in terms of politics that matter to people, they fall into the political category of ‘nice to have’ but inessential.

Stephen Winter is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland. He is the author of “Towards a Unified Theory of Transitional Justice” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the International Journal of Transitional Justice. Katherine Smits is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland.

The International Journal of Transitional Justice publishes high quality, refereed articles in the rapidly growing field of transitional justice; that is the study of those strategies employed by states and international institutions to deal with a legacy of human rights abuses and to effect social reconstruction in the wake of widespread violence.

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