All of the commentary on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples I have read says that the Declaration creates no new rights. For now, I’m going to assume that’s true.
What does the Declaration do then, if not create new rights? Well, it affirms that rights that exist elsewhere (like in other UN documents and international law) apply to indigenous peoples and individuals. This is significant because the rights in the Declaration have very often been—and very often are—denied to indigenous peoples and individuals.
There’s a lot to say about each Article and the Declaration itself, but today I thought I’d write a little bit about the first two Articles.
Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(4) and international human rights law.
In this case it is very clear that existing rights are being applied to indigenous peoples and individuals since specific documents are referenced. And the human rights of indigenous people, for example, have often been disregarded and violated, as shown in my previous post on forced assimilation. That indigenous girls were forcibly sterilized in the 1920’s and 1930’s and that indigenous Boarding School students were beaten, tortured and killed in those schools are violations of human rights. At the time—and oftentimes today—indigenous people were not considered fully human. So affirming that these rights extend to indigenous people and saying that they shall not be violated in the case of indigenous people is momentous.
Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity.
I said I wouldn’t lay out a definition of indigenous peoples or indigenous individuals, but it is important to think about what a ‘peoples’ is. This is very tricky, but I think that according to UN terminology, a peoples is some cohesive group of individuals that share some important characteristics like language(s), religion(s), culture, shared history, landbase and some sort of distinct political organization with some amount or type of sovereignty.
That is a very bad definition. (Defining this kind of thing is notoriously thorny!) But from the UN documents I’ve looked at, a peoples seems to be something like this. (I’d be happy to be corrected if I’m wrong about this, by the way.)
This will come up later—like in Article 3, on self-determination—but it is good to try to grasp what a peoples is because this document is extending rights to indigenous peoples and saying that indigenous peoples are free and equal to all other peoples.
What this this means for the ordinary person is that the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma is free and not controlled by some other political organization and is not somehow essentially inferior to other peoples we find in the world. Again, this is important since indigenous peoples have been thought (and are still thought) to be inherently inferior and justifiably controlled by other peoples.
Incidentally, it also means that indigenous peoples are not inherently superior. But that supposition has hardly been made by, say, colonizing peoples of indigenous peoples. If it had, they probably wouldn’t have been colonizing!