During my time as an intern for MADRE, a New York-based nonprofit, I was exposed for the first time to the struggles of indigenous peoples, particularly indigenous women. Indigenous populations in the Americas not only battle with the lasting effects of colonization by European powers, but also with the impact of modern globalization and urbanization. Both of these phenomenon displace indigenous populations, removing them from their traditional lands or regions and encroaching upon their autonomy. These lands often hold valuable natural resources subject to trade agreements, extraction projects, and external investments. Nicaragua, Brazil, and others do not have the political will to consult indigenous groups before conducting projects. Governments tend not to recognize, enforce protection, or implement indigenous rights such as self-determination and refuse to consult indigenous populations prior to large-scale projects on indigenous land.
As a means to provide protection to these groups, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. The idea was first presented in the UN Economic and Social Council, and it took almost twenty-five years of editing and redrafting before the final document was prepared. It was initially rejected by the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, all countries with large indigenous populations, but the four later accepted it as non-legally-binding. Most objections to the draft came over the issues of self-determination and land rights for indigenous groups, likely due to the economic ramifications governments would face by being barred free access from resource-rich land. Bolivia became the first to adopt the declaration as law.
During the drafting of the UN declaration, the International Labour Organisation adopted the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention in 1989. Although many countries in Latin America have ratified Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, implementation has been severely lacking. The Convention holds little support outside of Latin America- only twenty countries in total have ratified it. Rather than define the term indigenous, the Convention allows self-identification as a protected right. It also focuses on providing safeguards against discrimination and destruction of tradition and culture.
While international action is important to secure human rights for indigenous populations, it is the involvement of these peoples in their national governments that will help in reversing the trend of poor implementation. Participation in decision-making and institutional processes can lend these groups a means with which to strengthen the execution of the international norms codified in such documents as the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In Canada, for example, a record number of First Nations candidates ran for parliament ending in the most indigenous members elected ever. One of these freshman members, Dan Vandal, stated that “First Nations issues will now come to the forefront in the House of Commons… We’re going to get a higher profile and hopefully a resolution of those issues. My role is going to be to speak loudly for the people of my community.” Indigenous peoples face unique challenges that an outside representative simply would not be able to fully represent. A strong political presence would also prevent indigenous issues from being ignored. As indigenous groups increase their presence in government bodies, the more likely the issue of enforcement of human rights will fade along with the secondary issues caused by groups’ current vulnerability.
Beth Bickerton is a graduate of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, holding a degree in International Relations and French. She has previously worked in both nonprofit and governmental organizations, including the United States Supreme Court and the Social Science Research Council. Her interests include the European Union, human rights, and wildlife conservation.
Cover image: United States Mission in Geneva under a CC BY-ND 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license