Indigenous Affirmative Action

Duane Champagne
8/14/11

A primary goal of the human rights movement is to ensure equality for all persons and citizens of nation states. Within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) there is much talk about self-determination, exercise of cultural, territorial rights, and economic rights. Such rights, however, can only be exercised to the extent that any other group or citizen can enjoy the same rights. The human rights emphasis, including collective human rights directed to Indigenous Peoples, are designed to make sure that Indigenous Peoples enjoy human rights to the same extent as all other persons.

The framers of UNDRIP believe that the document does not contain any reference to special rights for Indigenous Peoples. In many ways, UNDRIP was a codification of existing international human rights, much more focused on indigenous issues. Nothing new was created by this bringing together of references to human rights and Indigenous Peoples in terms of recognizing Indigenous Peoples and indigenous rights that are often outside the organization and cultural foundations of nation states. Certainly Indigenous Peoples celebrated the affirmation of the international community, but did Indigenous Peoples gain enough? Do the existing documents ensure that Indigenous Peoples will exercise basic indigenous rights of cultural, political, and economic autonomy?

The methods of implementing indigenous rights advocates use of special measures, programs, or legislation—not to affirm indigenous rights, but rather to create compensating opportunities to overcome political and cultural marginalization and discrimination. The new efforts that nation states will support are aimed at political, cultural, and economic integration and assimilation. Special measures are fine as long as they support and uphold the central values of the nation state, and promote the conditions of universal human rights and equality. Some forms of special attention are possible for Indigenous Peoples as long as such measures intend to bring Indigenous Peoples into the nation state as an equal partner, or full citizen. Recent human rights efforts, like UNDRIP, work within the framework of nation states, and carry out the goals and values of nation states.

The extension of human rights protections to Indigenous Peoples is a welcome development. The supporters of universal human rights want to extend fairness, equality, and basic human protections to Indigenous Peoples. The supporters of the human rights movement have extended their philosophies and state protections to Indigenous Peoples. At least now Indigenous Peoples have the possibility of greater protections and greater opportunities. In many ways, the new Indigenous Peoples human rights movement is an international affirmative action program. Nation states are morally obligated to protect the human rights of Indigenous Peoples and bring them to the same economic, political, and cultural level as other peoples and citizens.

Nevertheless, while Indigenous Peoples should not reject the opportunities for protection and full participation within the state, Indigenous Peoples continue not to have the right to choose their own governments, cultures, and territories from within their own cultural traditions or views.

Much of Indigenous Peoples’ resistance to nation state incorporation is not necessarily an inherent opposition to nation states. Rather the nation states fail to bring Indigenous Peoples into the nation state based on their full consent, and without recognition of the nature and diversity of cultures, governments, and territories. If the new human rights movement is primarily aimed at equality and full citizenship, then the international human rights movement has misunderstood the full force of the indigenous movement or of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples do not want to have to make a choice between their own communities, and the national culture of citizens. They prefer both, to have full recognition of human rights, and national citizen rights, but at the same time, do not wish to abandon their own cultures, identities, traditions, and territories.

Contemporary nation states have institutional mechanisms for assimilation, equality, and adopting human rights, but they have yet to recognize or fully realize the depth or character of indigenous resistance to forced citizenship, or forced equality. Indigenous Peoples would rather work out relations with nation states that recognize them as peoples and assist them in upholding sustainable communities.

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