Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Sovereignty Claims of Indigenous Peoples

Think about it from their perspective. Assume you are part of a group that has inhabited a place for at least a thousand years. Your ceremonies and traditions date back a lot farther than those of the interlopers who now control every aspect of your life.  Your people have been connected to that particular place for all of recorded history.  Yet, now, the national government that surrounds you wants to dictate what you can and cannot do with your land and how your children should be educated.. That national government has sold the mineral rights out from under you (and kept all the money), polluted the waters you depend on, and stripped the forest that has always been your primary source of food. Wouldn't you be angry?

There are more than 300 million indigenous people in the world in this situation. There are at least 5000 different first nations in more than 70 countries. Most of these groups are fighting for their survival -- arguing that they should have control over their ancestral lands and be allowed to decide what happens within their borders.  In most instances, though, their sovereignty claims have been rejected.  In the United States, many Native Americans live in the worst economic conditions in the country.  They do not control what happens in their lives. While some Americans blame the tribes for their current circumstances, there can be no question that the American government has refused to allow the Indians to control their land and water and has not lived up to the promises that the American government has made over the past several hundred years.  In Australia, Latin America, Asia and in parts of Europe, First Peoples struggle for recognition and fair treatment.  While the United Nations has, after 25 years of discussion, finally passed a non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all with significant indigenous populations voted against it.  While the Declaration talks about recognition, it provides no imperative for the recognition of  the sovereignty claims of First Nations.

In Canada, First Nations control the land (reserves) on which they live.  They have rights of various kinds (both through treaties and constitutional mandates) that fall short of sovereignty, but guarantee greater independence than almost anywhere else in the world.  The Sarayaku in Ecuador, the Mapuche in Chile, the Amerindians in Guyana, the Adivasi in India, and the Yonggom in Papue New Guinea have far fewer protections.  In Israel, the 46 Bedouin communities in the Negev are not even listed on official government maps and their long-standing  land claims have never been addressed by the Israeli Supreme Court. 

Sovereignty (i.e. full recognition of their status as independent states) may be beyond what
First Nations can hope for in this era, but greater autonomy -- and perhaps even independence with regard to a range of resource, education, and justice issues-- ought to be negotiable.  

I don't see, though, how the sovereignty claims of First Peoples can be resolved in the courts of the very countries that have preempted their rights.  And, I don't think it is very likely that existing national governments will agree to have these claims adjudicated in international courts. To do so would mean allowing international bodies to contravene national sovereignty. (We've heard that argument a lot in the United States whenever questions of the World Court's jurisdiction are raised). That leaves the entire burden on individual First Nations to mobilize political support (both locally and globally). Given their lack of financial resources and their unwilling to engage in domestic politics (which would put them in the same position as any other interest group in a country when what they want is recognition of their sovereign rights), this is not a promising strategy. An international mediation approach might be worth considering.  In the same way that mediation has been used to resolve war and peace issues between contending nations as well as among waring factions within a country, it could be used to provide an in informal context in which national governments and First Nations could explore alternatives to full sovereignty.   

See Lawrence Susskind and Isabelle Anguelovski, Addressing the Land Claims of Indigenous Peoples published by the MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice for case studies of efforts by 14 indigenous peoples around the world to pursue their land claims.
(This can be downloaded for free at


Emma Selina Tipping said...

This is an effective introduction to the contentious issue of indigenous land rights. Even though natives were here thousands of years before the first settlers ever came to the New World, there is a huge void in our mental scape where the history of the land should be. Every America should be aware of that void so that we can collectively recognize the importance and legitimacy of indigenous claims to the land. Thank you for helping us to focus our attention and become better informed, Professor Susskind. I look forward to learning more from your research.

Unknown said...

An excellent point, recognizing the difficulties posed by attempting to resolve sovereignty rights in the courts of countries who took away indigenous rights in the first place. This definitely brings to mind the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty - a topic only relatively recently on the national stage. It still remains to be seen if any land will be awarded (assuming the Akaka Bill passes), though considering the lag in time between the overthrow of the monarchy, and the US' admission that this was an illegal use of police power, it will likely be a long fight.

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