February 15, 2010
In 2002 and 2004, I attended United Nations international indigenous forums and sub-committees. The resulting U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was ratified on September 13, 2007. Indigenous representation from around the world helped voice the concerns and needs of aboriginal people everywhere, for whom this is a matter of cultural survival.
What I witnessed was not a conflict between Native peoples and national governments. The agreement of the General Assembly that became Resolution 61/295 “solemnly proclaims” that the Declaration is “to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect.”
Articles 1 through 9 deal with the right of self-determination for Peoples as a society and collectively. Under the Vermont Constitution, governmental bodies are empowered to work on and support these provisions. In addition, our State Human Rights Commission operates in accordance with these.
Articles 10 through 14 deals with aboriginal peoples’ historic residences, as well as their traditions, religions, customs, education, and a framework for addressing the needs indigenous Peoples have in each of these categories. It is good and right that our Green Mountain State and our United States of America uphold these articles.
Article 15 is part of what the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA) represents. Section 2 reads: “States shall take effective measures, in consultation and cooperation with the indigenous peoples concerned, to combat prejudice and eliminate discrimination and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among indigenous peoples and all other segments of society.”
Also currently or potentially addressed by Vermont law and the existence and work of the VCNAA are Declaration articles 16-25. These provide the rights to: freedom of the media; fair labor practices; a legal voice and informed consent in matters affecting them; upholding and improving their traditions and organizations;
Article 26 deals with land use. While it sets out aboriginal rights, no aspect of the Declaration is meant to override “due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others”. Therefore, this does not conflict with Vermont laws concerning titles and claims. Canada has embraced the ideal in this article and allows public and non-titled lands to be returned to Native Peoples. Here, the Champion lands in the Northeast Kingdom might provide a place for a model program, or at least a starting point for discussion.
Articles 27 through 32 deals with the respect that Member States, such as the U.S.A., should extend to its indigenous Peoples, particularly in regard to environmental and cultural rights. A specific historical example of what is behind Article 30 was the use of Innu lands in northern Quebec as grounds for testing bombs.
Article 33 is an especially important provision of the Indigenous Declaration. It is in accord with freedom of assembly laws in Vermont and the country. It ensures that indigenous Peoples will be free from outside pressure as they and they alone decide who is a member of their People, how they want to organize themselves, and how “to select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their own principles.”
Articles 34 through 37 continue this theme with further provisions for self-determination and autonomous self-government. The right of each People to create their own political systems and institutions, by this Declaration, is sacrosanct and cannot be overridden by U.N. Member States. This includes treaties between different indigenous Nations, systems of justice, tribal or like Councils, and – very importantly – culturally and otherwise interacting with other members of their own People who live beyond a U.N.-recognized national border. For Western Abenaki, this is an especially significant aspect of the resolution, because it defines our rights to relate across the Canadian-U.S. border with other relations among our People.
Article 38 lays a burden of responsibility on U.N. Member States and therefore our own state. It calls for the support and implementation of the Indigenous Declaration through “appropriate measures, including legislative measures.” I think this is a worthy and wonderful undertaking for Vermont and Her people. Oligun! (It is good!)
Articles 39 through 45 are designed to enable Member States – and hence their own member states – to work cooperatively with Native people to develop the best resolution to problems and create the best collective projects in an effective and timely manner, as well as work together for the highest health and other standards.
Article 46, the last article of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, protects Member States from territorial instability due to the exercise of any of the preceding principles. It provides, however, that State and international law must not violate the Declaration except “solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for meeting the just and most compelling requirements of a democratic society.” In this way, everyone involved – in this case, the State of Vermont, the federal government, and our indigenous people – is protected.
The document concludes: “The provisions set forth in this Declaration shall be interpreted in accordance with the principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, equality, non-discrimination, good governance and good faith.”
Creating and ratifying the Declaration took more than 26 years’ work. There are still many details to be worked out, such as dealing with related litigation. The example of what we do in our little microcosm of the world may help further this effort, giving us a chance to directly connect to our neighbors in the best possible ways here on Mother Earth.
The Vermont Constitution already embodies many of the ideals, principles, and practices outlined by the Indigenous Declaration. We here in the Green Mountains – what the Abenaki call part of N’dakinna – staunchly protect and promote individual and collective rights and freedoms. It will be a proud day when Vermont adopts this U.N. resolution. I hope I am there on that historic day when our State once again sets a high bar for human rights.
For more information:
Full text of U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: see below, or online at Indigenous Work Group on Indigenous Affairs: http://www.iwgia.org/
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