Indian Nations & United States Debate Self-Determination and Self-Government at the United Nations - 1993 by Rudolph C. Ryser
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                - Geneva, Switzerland - July 18-31, 1993 -

                           By Rudolph C. Ryser
                   Center for World Indigenous Studies
                             20 August, 1993

 (COPYRIGHT 1993 Center for World Indigenous Studies All Rights Reserved) 

     The United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations just 
completed its Eleventh Session in Geneva, Switzerland.  It was one of the 
few times in international diplomatic history that representatives of many 
of the world's indigenous nations directly debated the formulation of new 
international law.  During the week of July 18 through July 31 at the 
Palaise des Nacions of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland more than 
one hundred twenty five indigenous nations' delegations and more than sixty 
states' government delegations conducted a vigorous debate over key words 
and phrases to be contained in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous 
Peoples slated soon to go before the UN General Assembly for final 
adoption.  At stake is whether international protections for the rights 
(land, cultural, economic, political) of the world's original nations will 
be recognized: 

     *   whether treaties between nations and states' governments will 
         have the force of international law, 

     *   whether states' governments may violate the rights of nations 
         and avoid international scrutiny or sanctions, 
     *   whether nations will have the actual rather than the implied 
         right to self-determination, self-government and the right to 
         exercise sovereignty over their territories, and 
     *   whether nations will enjoy the same rights to freely choose 
         their political, economic, social and cultural future without 
         external interference in the same way as other peoples in the 
         world have the guaranteed right under international law. 

     The Vatican, the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, 
fundamentalist Christians in England, United States and Canada, and 
militant practitioners of Islam would now argue that the Age of Ethics and 
Morality has replaced the Cold War dualism of Communism vs. Capitalism.  
While there is a great deal of evidence that religious contests for global 
domination are at work around the world, there is also evidence that a 
major global political realignment is now underway.  I suggest that we have 
just entered a transition period from political dominance by the global 
state system to a basic political rearrangement which places cultural and 
political diversity among peoples and ecosystems as the driving force for 
human development.  The "informal negotiations" between indigenous nations 
and states at the annual Geneva Working Group on Indigenous Populations 
sessions since 1982 have provided the foundation for a new movement toward 
global realignment. 

     Nations like the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Confederacy), Mapuche of 
Chile, the La Lahui of Hawai'i, Lakota, Lubicon Cree, Maori of New Zealand, 
Nuba of Sudan, Dene of Canada, Chukchi of Siberia, Sycuan Band of Mission 
Indians (California), Alliance of Taiwan Aborigines, Teton Sioux, Chamorro 
of Guam, Hmong of Laos, Chirapaq of Peru, Chakma of Bangladesh, the Even of 
the Russian Federation, and the Ecuarunari of Ecuador are among the many 
nations that have been participating in the process of developing new 
international laws for the benefit of nations at the United Nations since 
1982.  The Center for World Indigenous Studies, Indian Council of South 
America, Nordic Sami Council, Indian Law Resource Center, and National 
Aboriginal and Islander Legal Services Secretariat are among the 
organizations that have been participating as well.  Now, after eleven 
years of focused United Nations Working Group activity aimed at developing 
new international standards for relations between nations and states' 
governments, the first working Draft Declaration on the Rights of 
Indigenous Peoples has been completed.  The drafting process now moves from 
the Working Group to the Sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination 
and Protection of Minorities (August 1993), the Commission on Human Rights 
(February 1994), the UN Economic and Social Council (April 1994) and the UN 
General Assembly (October 1994). 


     What made this Session of the Working Group more remarkable than any 
one previous is the direct verbal debate between nations' and states' 
delegations over the language to be contained in the Declaration on the 
Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Sharp exchanges concerning whether certain 
terms would be acceptable in the Declaration flew back and forth.  The 
Observer Delegation for the United States government set the tone for what 
would be the states' government position when it issued its statement on 
July 21.  Earlier, the Observer Delegation for Canada hinted at the 
arguments that would be formally presented by the U.S. Government later.  
Brazil, India, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, to some 
extent the Netherlands, Mexico, Indonesia, Malaysia echoed the U.S. 
government position. 

     Maori led the less than unanimous debate by the nations' delegations.  
The most frequent speakers included the Grand Council of the Cree of 
Canada, Dene of Canada, Haudenosaunee, Confederacy of Treaty Six First 
Nations (Canada), Cordillera Peoples' Alliance (the Philippines), the 
Nordic Sami Council, Ka Lahui (Hawai'i),  Mikmaq Grand Council (Canada), 
the National Aboriginal and Islander Legal Services Secretariat, and the 
Indian Council of South America.  While it wasn't always unanimous, 
virtually all of the nations' delegations remained consistent.  (CWIS has 
the non-verbatim transcripts for all debates with the identity of key 
speakers and the substance of their remarks.) 

     One of the most remarkable aspects of the debate was the position 
taken by the United States government.  Despite the affirmation of the 
right of self-determination by each U.S. President since 1970, and despite 
a stated commitment to government-to-government relations and self-
government for Indian nations since 1983, the U.S. Observer Delegation 
pronounced the U.S. government's opposition to the application of self-
determination, self-government and the reference term "peoples" to 
indigenous nations.  Striking for its contradiction of U.S. stated policy, 
the U.S. government's views as expressed before the Working Group basically 
rejected tribal sovereignty, tribal self-determination, and self-
government.  Clearly the State Department, Department of the Interior, and 
the White House are each running totally different policies as far as 
Indian nations are concerned. 

     Equally disturbing is the fundamental contradiction between U.S. 
statements at the Working Group and the U.S. government's formal policy 
toward Indian nations as presented to the Commission on Security and 
Cooperation in Europe.  Not only are the statements contrary to these other 
international commitments, but they are also contrary to agreements just 
concluded with self-governance tribes (Quinault, Lummi, Jamestown 
S'Klallam, Hoopa in 1990).  The United States government has also ratified 
the International Convention on Political and Economic Rights (1992) which 
now obligates it further to support the self-determination of peoples.  Its 
positions before the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations contributes 
further to the sense that the U.S. government is pursuing a mixed policy 
internally and externally regarding the self-determination of peoples. 

     During consultations between indigenous delegations it was decided on 
July 30 to distribute a "Nations' draft" of the Declaration of Indigenous 
Peoples for consideration by nations' governments during the next twelve 
months in each of the world's regions.  Haudenosaunee and the Indian Law 
Resource Center are coordinating for North America.  The NCAI President was 
said to be attending the Sub-commission session in August.  It is not clear 
if the NCAI is planning to directly participate in the final process of 
drafting the Declaration. 

     Here are the essential issues dividing nation and state 
representatives, and a summary of agenda items taken up at the UN Working 
Group on Indigenous Populations Session 11 in July 1993: 


          Standards Setting Activities: Declaration on the Rights 
           of Indigenous Peoples - Final Readings and amendments 

     Since the Working Group was established in 1982, delegates from 
indigenous nations have been working to formulate internationally 
acceptable principles on the rights of Indigenous peoples which would help 
preserve the political, social, cultural and economic interests of 
indigenous nations world-wide.  Between 1982 and 1987, indigenous delegates 
met in Geneva, Switzerland to formulate the principles relying in part on 
the guidance of indigenous nations meeting in international conferences 
during the period 1977 - 1987.  In 1987, the indigenous nations draft 
principles had been completed.  In that previous year, the UN Working Group 
on Indigenous Populations had been mandated by its parent body, the UN 
Economic and Social Council/ Commission on Human Rights to draft and submit 
a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for consideration by the 
UN General Assembly. 

     Using the draft principles prepared by indigenous representatives, the 
Working Group began preparing new drafts in each succeeding year -- making 
amendments, adjustments and refinements upon each succeeding reading.  That 
process, involving the participation of indigenous representatives, 
representatives of states' governments, non-governmental organizations and 
a growing list of consulting experts was completed by the Working Group in 
its Eleventh Session (1993).  The document as drafted was submitted to the 
Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of 
Minorities.  After further refinements in this body, the document is 
expected to proceed to the Commission on Human Rights where representatives 
of states' governments will make further amendments and refinements.  If 
the Declaration is approved with changes in the Commission on Human Rights, 
it then goes before the UN Economic and Social Council, and from there to 
the UN General Assembly.  It is widely expected that a UN Declaration on 
the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be adopted before the end of this 

     What the text of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous 
Peoples will actually say when all is said and done (following more than 
fourteen years of work), is not yet clear.  Though it is likely that the 
final Declaration will follow the contours of the June 8, 1993 revised 
working draft (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1993/26), there remain some uncertainties.   
Here are the reasons why: 

     *   the draft Declaration leaving the Working Group has many more 
         "refinement and amendment" levels to complete before it is 
         formally adopted. 
     *   by the end of Session 11, the gap between indigenous 
         representative views and states' government views on the use 
         of the words "self-determination," "self-government," 
         "territory," and "peoples" remained wide and unresolved.  
         Indigenous representatives argued for inclusion of these 
         terms while states' government representatives argued for 
         their omission, deletion or substitution. 

     I described the process for adoption above, but the controversy over 
"terms" requires more elaboration.  Since the very beginning of the formal 
process of considering the draft Declaration (1987) the states' governments 
of United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden 
and Denmark have stressed their unwillingness to apply the international 
meaning of the words "self-determination," "self-government," "territory," 
and "peoples" to indigenous peoples.  Each of these states, joined by 
others including Japan, Brazil, India, Burma, Peoples' Republic of China 
and Indonesia has emphasized the view that questions concerning indigenous 
peoples must remain a "domestic issue," not open for consideration at the 
international level.  One reason for this tact is the fear of all states' 
governments that some indigenous nations may not chose to remain under 
state control, thus creating the possibility that some states will come 
apart, disassemble, dismember, or collapse.  Events associated with the 
collapse of the U.S.S.R. into fifteen states and probably many more, (when 
all is said and done) illustrate how even the apparently most powerful 
super-state can come apart.  So it is not without some justification that 
states' government representatives express opposition to recognizing the 
international right of self-determination applied to indigenous nations.  
However, its neither an absolute certainty that a nation will opt for 
independence from a state nor a strong probability that a nation will work 
to change its relationship to the state at all.  It is highly probable that 
most nations will seek to continue a cooperative relationship with a state. 


     While states' governments seek to maintain political control over 
indigenous nations (even those not consenting to such control), nations' 
representatives at the UN Working Group stress the view that "denying the 
right of self-determination to indigenous peoples simply sets the stage for 
potential violent confrontations between indigenous nations and states' 
governments."  The wars in India between the state government and the Naga 
nation, in Bangladesh between the Jumma peoples and the state government 
and in Indonesia between the state government and several nations including 
the Timorese, Molluccans and the Papuans are often cited as examples of 
"self-determination denied." 


     Similarly, states' governments have difficulty with the term "peoples" 
being applied to indigenous nations.  This problem flows from the fact that 
virtually all international legislation authorizing the exercise of certain 
rights allows only "peoples" to exercise those rights.  States' governments 
are obliged to take steps to implement the rights of peoples if they sign 
the relevant international laws.  Working Group Chairman/Rapporteur Eric-
Irene Daes notes in her "Explanatory note concerning the draft declaration" 
(E/CN.4/Sub.2/1993/26/Add.1) "Certain Governments have sought to narrow the 
definition of "peoples" in order to limit the number of groups entitled to 
exercise a claim to self-determination.  ....Indigenous groups are 
unquestionably "peoples" in every political, social, cultural and 
ethnological meaning of this term.  ....It is neither logical nor 
scientific to treat them as the same "peoples" as their neighbours, who 
obviously have different languages, histories and cultures."  If the word 
"peoples" is not associated with indigenous nations, then international 
laws have limited importance in enforcing the rights of "indigenous 

     States' governments wish to invoke the recently revised ILO Convention 
107 (1957), now standing as the ILO Convention 169 (1989), particularly 
Article 1(3) to narrow the meaning of the term "peoples."  It is in 
paragraph 3 of Article 1 in ILO Convention 169 that states' governments 
introduced a disclaimer on the question of indigenous nations being defined 
as "peoples:"  "The use of the term 'peoples' in this Convention shall not 
be construed as having any implications as regards the rights which may 
attach to the term under international law."  It is this disclaimer that 
states governments now want inserted in the Declaration.  The states' 
appeal to ILO Convention 169 will persist despite the fact that only five 
states' governments have actually ratified the instrument -- leaving 188 
state signatures still possible but unlikely. 


     The word "territory" also has important meanings in the international 
context not generally applied within the domestic state.  Nations, peoples 
and states have territories while minorities, ethnic groups and populations 
have "land rights."  Territory is a term governed under international law, 
but "land rights" is governed under domestic state law.  Indian 
reservations are the subject of "land rights" while aboriginal lands, 
water, resources, etc. are subjects of "territory."  Chairman/Rapporteur 
Erica-Irene Daes addresses this issue in her "Explanatory note concerning 
the draft declaration" (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1993/26/Add.1) where she equivocates 
and asserts a view which narrows the international meaning of "territory."  
Daes argues "...the reference to "territories" should not be confused with 
the concept of "territorial integrity" in international law.  It is not 
meant to imply a separation from the territory of the State as a whole in 
political terms, for it is clear that an indigenous people, even in the 
exercise of its rights to autonomy or self-government, is still ordinarily 
connected with the political territory or sovereignty of the State, as, for 
example, in the case of Greenland."  She goes on to rationalize her 
narrowing of the term's meaning by appealing to the International Labour 
Organization Convention 107 concerning the Protection and Integration of 
Indigenous and other Tribal and Semi-Tribal Populations in Independent 
Countries (1957): "...the term 'territory' is used here in [the] same sense 
as the often criticized 1957 ILO Convention No. 107.  ....Hence the term 
'territory' in the above-mentioned paragraphs conveys some notion of the 
totality of indigenous peoples' relationship to the land and to all of its 
resources and characteristics."  Daes' arguments are clearly weak and 
unpersuasive on this point, and will likely not dissuade states' 
governments from still attempting to delete the term "territory" from the 
Declaration text. 


     Finally, the term self-government has rather vague and sometimes 
confusing meanings depending on whether you represent the established state 
point of view as opposed to the view of international relations.  States' 
governments generally seek to limit self-government when applied to people 
inside state boundaries.  Inside, the term is used to mean "the power to 
make decisions, enact laws, and provide for the common welfare within the 
state framework and under limitations defined by the state."  Outside, in 
the international setting, the term self-government means "a peoples' power 
to freely choose a political status and decide their political, economic, 
social and cultural future without external interference."  Clearly, a 
state like the United States of America would prefer the "internal meaning" 
due to the capacity of the state to impose limitations on the exercise of 

     As you will see below in the "Highlights" section (July 20), the 
United States of America presents all of these views as its own.  It denies 
self-determination, self-government, territory and the application of the 
term "peoples" to indigenous nations in an apparent contradiction of its 
publicly stated policies to Indian nations.  Since 1970 the United States 
government has proclaimed its commitment to "Indian self-determination," 
and its courts have even gone so far as to affirm the political sovereignty 
of Indian nations.  The United States government has been negotiating 
Compacts of Self-Governance since 1987 and in its solemn commitments to 38 
states governments under the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 the United States 
government reported that it recognized the rights of Indian "peoples" and 
conducted its relations with Indian nations under a policy of government to 
government relations in accord with Principle VIII of the Final Act.  In 
its statement at the Working Group on July 20, 1993 the U.S. government 
effectively denied any such policies or commitments under the Helsinki 
Final Act.  It is quite clear that the U.S. government (as are Canada, 
Australia, New Zealand and several other states) is either lying to Indian 
nations "internally" or it is lying "externally."  Worst of all, it is 
possible that the U.S. government has two faces it wishes to present even 
though they are diametrically opposed to each other -- they contradict each 
other.  Either Indian nations are being told the truth internally or they 
are being manipulated by a government that cynically attempts to undermine 
Indian governments and Indian cultures. 


     Nations' and States' delegation reported often different pictures of 
social, economic and political conditions around indigenous nations.  From 
wars involving the Karen, Shan and Kachin against the state of Burma to the 
developing "sovereignty movement" among Hawi'ians dealing with the United 
States of America, at least 100 reports were delivered to the Working Group 
in the final two and one half days of the two week session. 

        POPULATIONS - Special Rapporteur Miguel Alfonso Martinez. 

     At the request of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (and the 
urgings of indigenous delegations) the UN Economic and Social Counsel 
(ECOSOC) appointed in 1989 a Special Rapporteur (Prof. Miguel Alfonso 
Martinez) and gave him a mandate to undertake a Study on Treaties, 
Agreements and other Constructive Arrangements between States and 
Indigenous Populations (ECOSOC resolution 1989/77 of 24 May 1989).  Now in 
its third year, the UN Treaty Study  has issued its first progress report 
(E/CH.4/Sub.2/1992/32) containing the following subjects: 

     *   Research and other activities so far undertaken 
     *   Some anthropological and historical considerations on key 
         issues relevant to the study. 
     *   The first encounters: Indigenous Peoples, Euro-Centrism and 
         the Law of Nations 
     *   Diverse Juridicial situations within the scope of the study 
     *   Treaties between States and indigenous nations 
     *   Agreements between States or other entities and indigenous 
     *   Other constructive arrangements 
     *   Situations involving indigenous peoples who are not parties 
         to, or the subject of any of the above-mentioned instruments. 
     *   Treaties between States affecting indigenous peoples as third 
     *   Conclusions and Recommendations 
(CWIS has a full copy of the Special Rapporteur's report.)

        Rapporteur Mme Erica-Irene Daes. 

        ON HUMAN RIGHTS (Vienna, Austria - June 1993) 

     For two weeks in June 1993, the UN hosted the World Conference on 
Human Rights (the first such meeting in twenty-five years) to review and 
create new emphasis and commitment supporting the principles of the 1948 
Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  At the request of indigenous 
peoples and the Chairman/Rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Indigenous 
Populations, the Conference took up a series of recommendations concerning 
indigenous peoples.  In its final report, the World Conference on Human 
Rights made several recommendations directly concerning indigenous nations.  
These were reviewed by the Working Group and subsequently presented to the 
Sub-commission for approval and forwarding to other competent organs of the 

a.  Completion of the draft declaration on the rights of 
    indigenous peoples at the eleventh session. 

b.  Commission on Human Rights consider the renewal and updating 
    of the mandate of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations 

c.  The advisory services and technical assistance programs with 
    the UN System respond positively to request by States for 
    assistance which would be of direct benefit to indigenous 

d.  Adequate human and financial resources be made available to 
    the Centre for Human Rights within the framework of 
    strengthening the Centre's activities as envisaged by this 

e.  Urges States to ensure the full and free participation of 
    indigenous peoples in all aspects of society, in particular 
    in matters of concern to them 

f.  The General Assembly proclaim an International Decade of the 
    World's Indigenous Peoples to begin from January 1994, 
    including action-oriented programs, to be decided upon in 
    partnership with indigenous peoples 

g.  Establish an appropriate Voluntary Trust Fund for the purpose 
    of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples 

h.  Within the framework of a Decade of the World's Indigenous 
    Peoples, establish a permanent forum for indigenous peoples 
    in the United Nations system. 

     From a technical meeting designed to develop detailed recommendations 
from the Conference a series of more specific suggestions were made.  These 
included suggestions concerning: 

a.  The Technical Meeting 

b.  Coordination of the United Nations System 

c.  Health 

d.  Dissemination of Information 

e.  International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples 

f.  Financial Provisions 

(The full document is available from CWIS)

     Finally, three informal consultation sessions involving indigenous 
peoples representatives and representatives of the UN secretariat were 
conducted at the World Conference on Human Rights to "discuss possible 
future United Nations activities."  From the report of those meetings, this 
is a summary: 
     *   Review of Accomplishments resulting since first formal 
         relationship between indigenous people and the United Nations 
         in 1982: 
     *   Two major studies:  UN Treaty Study and the Cultural and 
         Intellectual Property of Indigenous Peoples Study 
     *   Three UN Expert Meetings:  on Racism, Self-government and 
         sustainable development. 
     *   Proclamation of the International Year of the World's 
         Indigenous Peoples in 1993 
     *   Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - 
         Second Reading 1993. 
     *   Creation of the Voluntary Fund for International Year 
         providing direct assistance to indigenous communities 

     *   Revision of the ILO Convention 107 and adoption of ILO 
         Convention 169 (1989). 
     *   Establishment of Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations 
         providing assistance for travel for participants in UN WGIP 
         sessions -- 50 persons in 1993. 
     *   Increase in participation of indigenous delegations at WGIP 
         from 30 in 1982 to 600 in 1992 -- including Africa, Asia and 
     *   Cases relating to indigenous peoples interests submitted to 
         UN treaty bodies. 
     *   Indigenous peoples' staff appoint to UN secretariat 
     *   World Bank policy on economic development concerning 
         indigenous peoples 
     *   Creation of a regional fund for development of indigenous 
         peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean 
     *   A growing information dissemination process inside countries 
         and internationally to inform the public about the situations 
         of indigenous peoples. 

     During the previous 12 months representatives of indigenous peoples 
have expressed several concerns and made proposals before the UN General 
Assembly, Commission on Human Rights and at the World Conference on Human 

     *   Establish a permanent body in the UN to serve the needs of 
         indigenous peoples.  Suggest that the new body operate at a 
         high level within the UN structure, be capable of taking 
         decisions and have full and equitable indigenous peoples' 
     *   Establish a mechanism for monitoring the situation of human 
         rights among indigenous peoples; providing for grievances and 
         taking action to protect their rights. 
     *   Establish a system-wide programme to improve the situations 
         of indigenous peoples in areas such as health, development, 
         environment, etc.; such a program would also provide 
         technical assistance to indigenous people and launch a major 
         initiative in education and public awareness; indigenous 
         peoples want to be part of decision-making process. 
     *   Establish new procedures for expanding access to all levels 
         of the UN system to indigenous peoples. 

     Consideration of various new options for UN actions in support of 
indigenous peoples: 

A.  Special Rapporteur for review of situations involving torture 
    of indigenous people 

B.  A New Working Group on Indigenous Populations at the UN 
    Commission on Human Rights or the Economic and Social Counsel 

C.  Office of Indigenous Peoples within the Centre for Human 

D.  UN System-wide programme installing indigenous peoples' 
    offices throughout UN agencies 

E.  UN High Commissioner for Indigenous Peoples similar to the 
    position concerned with refugees 

F.  Committee of Experts including indigenous peoples 

G.  United Nations agency of indigenous peoples 

H.  Rigoberta Menchu Tun: a Maya and Nobel Laureate appointed as 
    a Goodwill Ambassador to appoint a panel of indigenous 
    leaders to conduct public speeches and raise awareness. 

I.  Place "Indigenous Peoples" as an item on the agenda of the 
    Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly. 


     In the twenty years since Shuswap Chief George Manuel began his search 
for international help and support for Indian nations in their struggles 
with the Canadian government great strides have been made.  But, as one who 
has directly participated in a great many meetings, conferences, strategy 
sessions, and position paper preparations since the early 1970s, I am 
somewhat troubled by the growing emphasis on absorbing indigenous nations 
into the state dominated system.  I am hopeful that nations will reassume 
their role as the dominant influence in the formulation of international 
relations.  It is the nation, after all, that originated the notion of 
"international relations."  More on this later. 

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