On Sept. 13, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly approved a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The protection of these rights depends on the governments of the people affected, but the vote is nevertheless a victory for indigenous people, who had struggled for over twenty years for this Declaration. The Declaration recognizes the rights of original inhabitants to self-determination, including rights to historic land. As Article 26 states, "Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired."
It is estimated that there are still over 350 million indigenous people worldwide. In many cases, their languages, religions, and cultures are still vanishing, and indigenous territory is still being invaded to destroy forests and mine the resources, with little or no benefit to the local people.
All over the world, indigenous people such as the Indians of the Americas have been conquered, mass-murdered, and forced to assimilate. This Declaration marks an important historical turning point, acknowledging that great wrongs have been committed to native populations. The Declaration was approved by 143 UN member states; with 11 abstaining, and 4 countries opposed, namely the English-speaking conqueror countries: the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Even the Russian Federation, which has numerous indigenous peoples in its vast territory, abstained rather than vote against the Declaration.
The governments of the United States and Australia had in the past forcibly removed children from their families and put them in boarding school in order to assimilate them into the Anglo world. They were forbidden to speak their native languages, many of which have been dying out. The result of this cultural oppression has been poverty, alcohol abuse, and early deaths.
The Declaration specifically recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to preserve their institutions, cultures and traditions. It also calls for restitution for past takings. Article 28 states, "Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or compensation for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their consent."
The chiefs of the Anglo countries fear that the approval of this Declaration could undermine the sovereignty and unity of their rule. Yet in these nay-saying countries, the indigenous people already have some legal sovereignty. In the United States, the Indian nations are legally sovereign, having signed treaties with the US federal government. The Anglo-world governments have also already recognized some of the land rights of the indigenous people. Yet the state chiefs fear that this Declaration would renew efforts to regain aboriginal land.
Legally, the United States has three parallel sovereign entities, the federal government, the states, and the Indian nations. Canada and Australia also have a federal rather than unitary structure. In practice, however, the legal sovereignty of the states and Indian nations in the US have been invaded by the federal government, and by rejecting the Declaration, the US government shows it intends to keep on violating the sovereign rights of the native Indians, the original Hawaiians, and the aboriginal people of Alaska.
Due to pressure by the heads of African countries, the Declaration recognizes the territorial integrity of today's countries. The Declaration is not an endorsement of secession and of breaking up countries, but of the rights to self-determination and freedom from theft that is already recognized by previous declarations of human rights.
The historian Franz Oppenheimer showed that state governments originate in conquest. The conquered people become slaves, serfs, or second-class residents. Even when the countries become independent as in Africa, the people still living in traditional cultures are forced or pressured to assimilate into the European-influenced culture promoted by the national suit-and-tie wearing chiefs of state.
The main sticking point is, as usual, the land issue. We should realize that the ownership of land is not a unitary absolute. Ownership is a bundle of rights. The strands of the bundle include the rights of possession, rights to the natural rents (due to the natural resources), rights to the rentals generated by population and commerce, and rights to the rentals generated by public works and civic services.
The natural rights of indigenous peoples do not necessarily include the entire bundle of rights to their historic land, and clearly not that value due to development by others. At minimum, indigenous peoples have the natural and historic rights to practice and preserve their traditional culture and to control their own lives and to continue to live in their historic areas free from exploitation and interference. If they live in areas still in their natural state, such as the remaining Amazon rain forest, the resources should be recognized as also being a global treasure worth preserving.
The government of United States in particular has been criticizing human rights violations in other countries, so its vote against indigenous rights gives fuel to those accusing the USA of hypocrisy. The chiefs of the Anglo-conqueror countries should ratify the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as recognition of their past wrongs and to finally recognize their indigenous populations as having legitimate rights to self-governance.
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FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.
Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.
Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.