UNPFII Recommends Redress of Doctrine of Discovery Harm
The 11th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues ended with the acknowledgment that the racist Doctrine of Discovery continues to impact Indigenous Peoples around the world, but also that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) provides a framework to redress the continuing injustices resulting from the 500-year-old ideology of domination.
At the end of the two-week session on May 18 at the U.N. in New York, the UNPFII adopted a concluding report with a number of recommendations to address the harmful impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery, which was the theme of this year’s session. The Doctrine evolved from 15th century papal bulls in which the Catholic Church gave its blessing to the European monarchs of Portugal and Spain to claim ownership of any “discovered” lands that were not already occupied by Christians. The Doctrine was used as legal justification by European colonists to murder and enslave Indigenous Peoples and steal their lands and resources. Throughout the UNPFII session, the Doctrine was condemned as the shameful and morally bankrupt foundation all racist and socially unjust policies constructed and used by nation states against Indigenous Peoples around the globe.
The report begins by referencing the fourth paragraph in UNDRIP’s preamble, which affirms that “all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.” Doctrines of domination and “conquest,” such as terra nullius and the Regalian doctrine, supported the repulsive racism that allowed colonists to depict Indigenous Peoples as “savages,” “barbarians,” “uncivilized’ and “inferior.” But the oppressive doctrines are not quaint relics of yesterday; they are found in today’s regulations, policies and court decisions in which States claim to have “extinguished’’ the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their lands, territories and resources, their right to self-determination, their languages, religions and “even their identities and existence through the notion of ‘recognition’, that is by recognizing some and not recognizing others as indigenous,” the report says. “No other peoples in the world are pressured to have their rights ‘extinguished,’” it says.
Citing Articles 26, 27 and 28 of the UNDRIP, treaty body jurisprudence and human rights case law, the report confirms Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights to the lands, territories and resources that they traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used. It calls for respect of Indigenous Peoples’ customs, traditions and land tenure systems and echoes the UNDRIP’s demand that states rectify past wrongs caused by the doctrines of domination. “States are no longer allowed to deploy positivist legal interpretations of laws adopted during an era when doctrines such as terra nullius were the norm,” the report says.
The UNPFII called on states to review and revise their constitutions and legal frameworks with the goal of recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ human rights and ensuring that non-discrimination is guaranteed. “The term ‘racial discrimination’ means any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life,” the report says. It also urges against other forms of discrimination, including gender and age.
Other recommendations ask states to include a discussion on the Doctrine of Discovery and dispossession and its contemporary manifestations in all education curricula in school systems; to establish a voluntary international mechanism to receive and review Indigenous Peoples’ communications, including claims to, or violations of, their rights to the lands, territories and resources; to introduce indigenous youth perspectives into existing youth policies and plans, including a five-year action agenda to address health issues, including mental health services for young people, with particular efforts to address suicide among indigenous youth.
The UNPFII also adopted a number of texts in its report, including a text on human rights matters (document E/C.19/2012/L.9), which notes that few states have done much to address or implement UNDRIP since its adoption by the General Assembly five years ago. Other adopted texts include recommendations on food sovereignty, violence against indigenous women and girls, the World Intellectual Property Organization, arrangements for the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples and emerging issues.