And guess who didn’t sign it?

September 25, 2007

On September 13, 2007 the UN adopted its first Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to their press release, 143 member countries voted for it, 11 abstained, and 4 (that’s right, less than a whole hand worth of fingers) voted against it. Of course, the US was one of them, along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

I’m not sure this story would have caught my eye unless I’d spent my spring semester of this year immersed in postcolonial theory, because these particular countries are, not coincidentally, all part of a special brand of colonizing force: the settler state. These are states built on gradual settlement rather than outright occupation and colonization, but with most of the same long term effects, including disenfranchisement and economic & social marginalization. To be clear, a lot of other settler nations with equally large indigenous populations signed, such as Brazil. I can’t say I’m surprised that my country of citizenship has felt the need to be so blatantly skeezy, but at least for once we are joined in our bastardom by our usually more virtuous neighbor to the north.

Even though the declaration, like the earlier declaration of human rights, is non-binding and spends a lot of time stating obvious things such as “indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples,” it does have provisions which would basically establish indigenous populations as permanent sovereign segments of the settler state– thereby preventing assimilation, or just encroachment? More to unpack there than I have the brainpower for right now. It also says that there can be no more forced removals without prior informed consent and just compensation. And I’m guessing that’s the reason why all of us first world exploiter… I mean, settler states decided we’d best not sign our names. Being non-bound to basic human dignity and morality is just a little too much for us still.

I think Canadian blogger Soup is Good Food (brought to my attention via my Global Voices Online feed) pretty much hits the nail on the head with this analysis:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is/was non-binding. Now many parts of it are customary international law. It’s not perfect and violations still occur, but it’s there. It’s a global rallying point for change and justice. And that’s something.

Politicians have learned from this “mistake” of allowing non-binding seemingly harmless feel-good declarations in. It eventually causes problems. Which is why we now have four powerful countries with ongoing histories of disgusting abuses against indigenous populations having temper tantrums over the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Because heaven forbid we should sign onto something that would oblige us to do the right thing.

I guess the good news is that by refusing to sign on, these settler states are also tacitly acknowledging its disruptive power. If it was utterly toothless, why not just sign it and look like hypocrites?


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