Gale Courey Toensing
Speaking at the 12th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on May 28 in New York, New York were, from left, Roberto Borrero, Taino Nation; Steven Newcomb, Shawnee, Lenape; and Chief Darwin Hill, Tonawanda Seneca Nation. All three criticized the United States in side stepping the human rights affirmed to Indigenous Peoples in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

US Government Under Fire at Permanent Forum Ahead of World Conference

Gale Courey Toensing
May 31, 2013



Indigenous organizations attending the 12th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) criticized the United States federal government for trying to make an end run around the human rights affirmed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration) and voiced concern that state actions will sideline Indigenous Peoples at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples scheduled for September 2014. The UNPFII took place at the U.N. in New York from May 20-31.

In a day long discussion on the World Conference during the Permanent Forum on May 28, speakers expressed opposition – and indignation – at a statement made by Laurie Shestack Phipps, advisor for economic and social affairs of the United States Mission to the United Nations, regarding the federal government’s position on the Declaration.

Phipps’ statement, or “intervention” as it is called at the U.N., was presented May 22 in opposition to a suggestion that the Permanent Forum establish a monitoring and complaints mechanism for the Declaration. But most offensive to indigenous organizations was Phipps’ reiteration of parts of the State Department’s white paper of December 16, 2010 – the day President Barack Obama announced that the  U.S. was “lending its  support” to the Declaration.

“We would like to take this opportunity to note that the Declaration is a non-binding, aspirational document,” Phipps stated. “We would also like to reiterate the U.S. government’s view that self-determination, as expressed in the Declaration, is different from self-determination in international law.”

The statement set off a red alert among North American Indigenous Peoples when it was first announced. “We’ve been involved in these issues for a while now and making sure that the United States doesn’t try to domesticate the international Declaration—that’s going to be the challenge,” Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis said at the time. And the statement outraged people again at this year’s Permanent Forum. (Related story: Next Step: ? Implementation)

 “The most objectionable [part of the U.S. statement] was their reiterated position that the rights of self-determination as recognized under international law for ALL PEOPLES is somehow a different right for Indigenous Peoples,” Roberto Borrero (Taino People of Boriken – Puerto Rico), said in an impassioned statement that he read on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council. “At that time [2010] Indigenous Peoples did not accept this attempt to redefine international law as affirmed in the U.N. Charter and the Covenants, or to diminish the internationally recognized minimum standard of the Declaration. We do not accept it now.”

The IITC statement acknowledged that the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples has the potential to move forward the full and effective implementation of the inherent rights affirmed by the Declaration. But IITC and other indigenous organizations are concerned that some states might use the World Conference “in an attempt to diminish, qualify or redefine the rights affirmed in this hard fought minimum standard, or to limit the intended scope of its implementation,” Borrero said.  “We are firmly resolved and will stand united with the Indigenous Peoples of the world to ensure that this will not happen.  Discrimination must not be tolerated in any body or process of the United Nations which is based on the fundamental principles of international human rights law and the tenants of the U.N. Charter which include non-discrimination.”

The IITC has asked the Permanent Forum to issue a formal statement expressing its concern and joining with Indigenous Peoples in rejecting discriminatory attempts by the U.S. or any other state to diminish the rights affirmed in the Declaration by the U.N. and at the World Conference. “This is an historic opportunity for full and effective implementation, in good faith and partnership,” Borrero said. “The time for racial discrimination and all doctrines which justify it is the past. Their proper place is in the dustbin of history. “

Indigenous representatives from Africa, Asia, the Arctic, North America, Central and South America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia, and the Pacific as well as the Indigenous Women’s Caucus and the Indigenous Youth Caucus, both of which presented interventions at the Permanent Forum, will attend a preparatory conference in Alta, Norway June 10-12 to consolidate indigenous Peoples’ strategies and positions for the World Conference, which is described as “a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly.”

Kenneth Deer, representative of the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus (NAIPC), said the caucus agreed to take part in the World Conference under certain conditions, including advancing “the rights of Indigenous Peoples as peoples and nations with rights equal to all other peoples, that we have and confirm the inalienable right to self determination as recognized in various international instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights … as well as our rights to our lands, territories, resources, treaties, languages and cultures.” He said the Alta Conference outcome document should assert these rights and support the implementation of the Declaration and that the NAIPC will review the document “to determine what positive and negative impacts it could have and also to assess NAIPC’s involvement in the World Conference.”

Steve Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape), an Indian Country Today Media Network columnist, presented an intervention on behalf of the Indigenous Law Institute that began with an acknowledgment that the U.N. building stands on the traditional territory of the Lenape, Munsee and Delaware ancestors. Mincing no words, Newcomb said that the U.S. position for a ‘different” right of self determination for Indigenous Peoples in international law “is racist and predicated on ancient theological-political bigotry” – namely the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christian nations to claim as their own land that was not inhabited by Christians and to kill or enslave the indigenous inhabitants or those lands. The World Conference “will not result in positive and fundamental reform for our Nations and Peoples unless it is used as an opportunity to engage in the kinds of moral discussions that took place in the 16th century … regarding Aristotle’s theory of natural domination or slavery and whether our ancestors were human. The difference today, of course, is that we have our own voice,” Newcomb said.

Tonawanda Seneca Chief Darwin Hill read a statement on behalf of an umbrella group including the National Congress of American Indians, United South and Eastern Tribes, the California Association of Tribal Governments, 72 Indigenous nations and seven Indigenous organizations. Violations against indigenous are actually increasing in some states, Hill said. And the Declaration, which is supposed to protect those rights, cannot be effective without implementing measures and without international monitoring, he said. The group recommended, among other things, creating a new U.N. body to promote and monitor implementation of the Declaration and giving Indigenous Peoples “a dignified and appropriate” permanent status through their constitutional and customary governments to participate in all U.N. activities.


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