The U.S.’s Interpretation of the UN High-Level Outcome Document

Steven Newcomb

Recently, a United Nations (UN) “high level plenary meeting” occurred on September 22 and 23, at the UN headquarters in New York. A great deal of confusion has arisen because the UN high level meeting was “to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.” (WCIP) But let’s be clear. It was not a world conference. Although the meeting was given a name, “WCIP,” the nature of the meeting itself remained the same: a UN “high level plenary meeting.”

In any case, a number of conclusions can be drawn from that recent UN meeting. First, our Nations are not being recognized as Nations at and by the UN. Second, in its interventions at the UN, the United States is characterizing our Nations as “tribes” and “tribal governments” that the U.S. deems to be “domestic” to its dominating political system. Third, the US has evidently begun to interpret “indigenous peoples” to mean merely “individuals” and “communities.” This diverts attention away from our political identity as originally free and independent Nations, as Nations that began originally free and independent of the political domination of the United States.

Ambassador Keith Harper is the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council. On September 22, 2014, he was the head of the U.S. delegation attending the UN high level plenary meeting in New York. While there, he delivered the United States’ “Explanation of Position.” Even though it wasn’t exactly the same as Canada’s “Explanation of Vote,” anyone who wants to know how the United States is interpreting the high level meeting outcome document needs to closely read the U.S.’s Explanation of Position regarding the UN outcome document.

That U.S.’s Explanation of Position contains what appears to be a curious deception and resulting incoherence having to do with the letter “s” on the word “peoples.” In the international arena, the use of the letter “s” on “peoples” typically indicates a distinct and separate “Peoplehood,” i.e., Nationhood. However, the U.S.’s Explanation of Position says: “This historic conference honors the immeasurable contributions of the millions of indigenous peoples worldwide.” Read those last five words again: “millions of indigenous peoples worldwide.” See the “s” on “peoples?” As mentioned above, the ‘s’ typically indicates distinct Peoplehood and Nationhood, or in other words entire peoples, and entire nations.

It is commonly estimated that there are some 370 million indigenous people in the world who are classified as “indigenous.” The lack of an ‘s’ on “people” means that this is to be interpreted as 370 individual humans divided into more than 4000 distinct Peoples (with an ‘s’). That being said, it would be accurate for the U.S.’s Explanation of Position to talk about the “immeasurable contributions of thousands of indigenous peoples worldwide.” I do not know anyone who has claimed, or would claim, that there are millions of Indigenous peoples in the world based on the some 370 million humans in the world being categorized as “indigenous.”

The U.S. document delivered by Ambassador Harper at the UN high level plenary demonstrates that when the United States uses the term “indigenous peoples” (with an ‘s’) it now means “indigenous individuals.” This has resulted in U.S. incoherence and ambiguity. I believe that the U.S. Explanation of Position demonstrates that the U.S. government is now interpreting “indigenous peoples” to only mean “indigenous individuals” and “communities” when used in the context of the United States. This inference is supported by a statement in the U.S.’s Explanation of Position which says that the high level meeting of the General Assembly “also underscores the need for all states to work with indigenous individuals, leaders, and communities to meet our common challenges.”

The U.S.’s use of “indigenous peoples” in its Explanation of Position corresponds to the way “indigenous peoples” is being used in a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) document that was published on July 24, 2014. The document is titled “EPA Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples.” On page 2 we find: “The EPA recognizes the importance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the principles that are consistent with the mission and authorities of the Agency.” Under definitions, however, we find the following focus on “individuals,” which is consistent with the US government’s incoherent assertion on September 22, 2014 that there are “millions” of “indigenous peoples worldwide.”

Indigenous Peoples (for the purposes of this Policy) – the term “indigenous peoples” includes state-recognized tribes; indigenous and tribal community-based organizations; individual members of federally recognized tribes, including those living on a different reservation or living outside Indian country; individual members of state-recognized tribes; Native Hawaiians [individuals]; Native Pacific Islanders [individuals]; and individual Native Americans. (bold emphasis added)

Regarding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the US Explanation of Position says: “A major achievement of the outcome document is that it builds upon, and seeks to further the ends of, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” And what did Ambassador Harper tell the world community about the U.S.’s position regarding the UN Declaration? He said: “The United States strongly supports the Declaration, as detailed in the statement accompanying President Obama’s announcement in December 2010.” ( italics added).

In other words, the United States “strongly supports the Declaration” within the limited context of the U.S. State Department’s 2010 “statement” that accompanied President Obama’s expression that same day of U.S. support for the Declaration. So, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations has notified us in its Explanation of Position, that If we want to know how to interpret the U.S. government’s claim that it “strongly supports the [U.N.] Declaration,” then we must read and carefully analyze the statement issued by the U.S. Department of State on December 10, 2010.

The U.S.’s December 2010 statement explains that the U.S. intends to interpret the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in a manner designed to maintain the current system of U.S. federal Indian law and policy, with a focus on Indian “tribes,” “domestic dependent nations,” and “tribal self-determination.” But that document also lets us know that the United States intends to interpret the UN Declaration in a manner that focuses on what the U.S. government considers to be individual Americans, which the U.S. government typically calls “Native Americans.”

The State Department said in its 2010 statement that the UN Declaration “expresses aspirations of the United States, aspirations that this country [the U.S.] seeks to achieve within the structure of the U.S. Constitution, [U.S.] laws, and [U.S.] international obligations, while seeking, where appropriate, to improve our laws and policies.”

This lets us know that there will be occasions when the United States will deem it to be not appropriate to improve (reform) the laws and policies of the United States. The U.S. government fully intends to use the UN Declaration as a basis for maintaining U.S. federal Indian law and policy in its present form. And, unfortunately, certain Indian leaders and organizations have been assisting the United States to maintain rather than reform U.S. federal Indian law and policy. This is demonstrated by the uncritical and unquestioning support by some Indian leaders and organizations for the UN high level plenary meeting outcome document, adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 22, 2014.

The U.S.’s statement from 2010 contains a third section: “The Declaration and U.S. Initiatives on Native American Issues.” Once again the focus is on the idea of individual “Americans.” This is made evident by the following sentence: “The United States is home to over two million Native Americans [individuals], 565 federally recognized Indian tribes, and other indigenous communities.” (emphasis added) Instead of acknowledging the “federally recognized Indian tribes” as full-fledged Nations, the U.S. has categorized them as “indigenous communities.”

In the U.S.’s Explanation of Position delivered by Ambassador Harper, the U.S. says: “We are also pleased that the [outcome] document recommends continued activity on enhancing the participation of indigenous peoples at the UN. The text asks the Secretary-General to develop specific proposals in this regard, and the United States will actively contribute to this effort, working with other Member States in the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council to enable the robust participation of tribal government leaders and other indigenous representatives.” Did you notice the capital ‘M’ and ‘S’ on “Member States” and the lowercase ‘t,’ ‘g’ and ‘l’ on “tribal government leaders?” The opening of the UN high level plenary meeting outcome document reads: “We the Heads of State and Governments…” Notice the capital ‘H’ and ‘S’ and ‘G’, as a contrast to lowercase ‘t’ ‘g’ ‘l’ for “tribal government leaders. So much for equality between “tribal governments” and dominating states.

In other words, what the United States government is supporting in the United Nations is an international recognition of the United States’ imposed “domestic dependent nation” status for our Originally Free Nations, a status premised on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination. The U.S. is fully supportive of that “domesticated” and “tribal” status being recognized in the United Nations because it serves to validate in the international arena the centuries-old, “under-the-thumb” system of US domination and Original Nation subjection, which is typically called U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s and has published several law review articles.

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