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Changes Afoot for Indigenous Peoples in the United Nations

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

New Zealanders celebrate their country's endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010.
New Zealanders celebrate their country's endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010. Photo credit: Broddi Sigurðarson

Indigenous peoples have long fought for meaningful inclusion in international political fora, beginning at least as far back as 1923 with the League of Nations, the United Nations’ precursor. Despite the fact that Indigenous peoples (IPs) have always practiced the art of international diplomacy with each other and outsiders who invaded their territories—and the fact that their existences as nations typically far predate today’s modern states—they have been largely shut out from the contemporary world’s political processes.

With the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 a new level of recognition was achieved. The UNDRIP was the first international instrument to explicitly support Indigenous rights to self-determination and to freely choose their own political status. But it is precisely these rights that have been so contentious for many states who perceive Indigenous self-determination as threatening to the “territorial integrity” and authority of the state.

In 2011 Evo Morales, President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, called for a high level plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to discuss how states can best implement the UNDRIP. Held in 2014, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) was the first ever such meeting of the UNGA dedicated to Indigenous issues. For approximately two years, Indigenous peoples representing seven caucuses prepared for the WCIP, culminating in an IP preparation conference in Alta, Norway. The historic Alta meeting was the first time that Indigenous peoples from all regions of the globe had come together to prepare a joint statement of their collective goals, the Alta Outcome Document.

The WCIP as a meeting of the UNGA meant that IPs had no official participation, since there is no mechanism that recognizes them within the UN system. The Alta Outcome Document was IPs voice in the WCIP. Among the document’s recommendations was the creation of a mechanism to give IPs a seat at the table of the UNGA. The WCIP’s mission was to produce its own Outcome Document. Few of the Alta document’s recommendations were adopted by the UNGA in the WCIP document, but one of them was to create some kind of mechanism for inclusion in the UN system.

This has resulted in a new level of engagement between IPs and some state governments. In the US, it has taken the form of a budding relationship between Native Americans and the Department of State. As opposed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (within the Department of the Interior), which has been the arm of the federal government that has exclusively dealt with American Indians for well over a century, State Department involvement is new.

What State Department involvement actually represents might be a matter of some debate among observers and participants, but it does seem to signify some level of recognition for international standing of American Indians as Indigenous peoples. State Department officials have conducted a few meetings with Native Americans over the past couple of years. On March 11, 2016, it hosted a meeting with American Indian leaders to follow up on recommendations in the WCIP Outcome Document. The consultation was about creating a mechanism to monitor state compliance with the UNDRIP.

Other consultations are occurring between the UN and IPs. The UN has solicited advice from IPs on the issue of government representation with a series of consultations throughout April and May that will result in a compilation document. The UN President will present the document for adoption at the next meeting of the General Assembly in September 2016.

Including IPs into the UN system means expanding the way they currently function. The main bodies that take up IPs concerns, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), have no authority beyond their consultative and advisory functions. Neither they nor Indigenous non-governmental organizations have representational power. This is why IPs had no official inclusion at the WCIP in 2014.

Suggestions for effective inclusion of Indigenous governing institutions include granting them observer status or creating an entirely new status. Whatever is decided will necessarily entail a new process for accreditation and recognition of legitimate Indigenous governing institutions.

On the issue of monitoring, consultations currently consider expanding the mandate of EMRIP. Right now EMRIP’s primary purpose is to provide research and information on IPs. Many Indigenous groups support expanding EMRIP to serve as the UNDRIP monitoring body.

Assuming these changes will be implemented, it remains to be seen whether they will empower IPs in the international arena at the UN level, or if they will amount to little more than token but largely impotent positions. It’s akin to playing a game with rules that weren’t designed for you to win since the UN system is composed of colonial institutions. But IPs won’t know until and unless they are willing to take their chances and engage in the process.


About the Author 

Dina Gilo-Whitaker draft photo credit Tom WhitakerDina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an independent writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, having earned a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies from the University of New Mexico, and also holds the position of research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. Her work focuses on issues related to Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, and environmental justice, and more recently the emerging field of critical surf studies. She is a co-author (with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) of the forthcoming book from Beacon Press, ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’ and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans. An award-winning journalist, she is a frequent contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network and Native Peoples Magazine.