The Rights of Indigenous Peoples

JINSA Report #1048

In one of those form-over-substance moments that produce endless opportunity for mischief, President Obama announced that the United States would affix its signature to the United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “The aspiration it affirms, including respect for the institutions and rich cultures of native peoples, are ones we must always seek to fulfill,” he said.

Americans happily adapt and adopt parts of other people’s cultures (Chinese food unlike anything served in Beijing, pizza Italians wouldn’t recognize, St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo parties) and respect other parts (forms of dress, holy days and fasting for Ramadan). But there are “native” cultures that simply do not warrant respect including honor killings, female genital mutilation, slavery, stripping trees for cooking fuel, clubbing baby seals and governance by the sword come to mind.

Worse, in Article 26, the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes a prescription for endless warfare.

    “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”

And Article 28 states that qualified groups

    “have the right to redress,” which can include “restitution” or “just, fair and equitable compensation” for land or resources that have been “confiscated, taken (or) occupied.”

Applied to American Indian tribes, before which the President made his announcement, this may take the form of reparations and mineral rights. The Executive Director of the Indian Law Resource Center said, “International human rights law now recognizes… rights of self-determination, property and culture.” It is unlikely to involve having Indian tribes secede from the Union.

But applied to Palestinians and Kurds, not to mention minorities from Azeris in Iran to Uighurs in China to Armenians, Hmong tribesmen and Guatemalan Indians, it could wreak havoc.

The Kurds form a tribal/national grouping that spans Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. They are unquestionably an “indigenous people” with a distinct language and culture. Is the United States prepared to support border changes to allow them the right of self-determination? American lives were expended in the quest for a unitary Iraq, and we supported Turkey’s determination not to allow Kurds to secede during the PKK war. But how can we deny the Kurds while supporting a Palestinian “right to self determination”?

This raises the question whether the Palestinians are actually a separate grouping outside of their multigenerational refugee status and determination to erase Israel. Certainly they are less separated from West Bank, Israeli and Jordanian Arabs than the Kurds are from Turks and the Arabs of Iraq. Palestinians are largely descended from the people of the Ottoman vilayet of Syria and the British Mandate. But Jordan’s King Abdullah is a Hashemite from the Hejaz of Arabia.

One of the few things upon which Hamas and Fatah agree is that all of Israel and Jordan are “occupied” Palestinian territory. While it is surely pushing for the establishment of Palestine in part of the old Mandate territory, is the United States prepared to turn Jordan over to its “indigenous peoples” so they can have the rest of it? Replace Israel with “Palestine”?

It is noteworthy in this context that the Jewish people constitute the ultimate success of an indigenous people reclaiming sovereignty and rights in their historic space. Jews have been there from the time of the Bible. Most but not all of them were expelled in the early part of the last millennium but Jews maintained religious, cultural, linguistic and tribal ties to the land until the establishment of the Third Jewish commonwealth in 1948.

The conferring of “rights” on “peoples” implies a corresponding debt to be paid to them by others. Doing so without responsibility (the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is non-binding) is a prescription for endless demands by people determined to wrest something from others who may not be prepared to pay or even acknowledge that the debt is real. And the debt may not be real. Who will decide?

Far from a harmless exercise in multicultural sensitivity, the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets the stage for an endless series of “small wars” that may have big consequences.

December 20, 2010 | 2 Comments »

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  1. The paradox is that we often hear complaints about American culture but a few people realize that it is as you mention just a mixture of other cultures of the world /Chinese and Italian food,…/. Anyway the issue of resolving the disputes over the land and its owners is a very difficult one and the failure to achieve a solution is often attributed to the fact that religion plays an important role in it.

  2. The ancient “Palestinian people” [Philistines] ceased to exist as a distinct people in the fifth century B.C.E. The present “Palestinians” are an artificial “people”–Arabs, predominantly Muslim, who drifted from surrounding areas into the former Ottoman territory loosely called Palestine. (The tag “Palestine” was a Roman insult against the Jews, as the Romans looked for an old enemy of Israel to rename their land.) These “Palestinians” were originally from areas now called Syria, Iraq, Arabia, etc, but for political purposes they were “knighted” as a “people” after 1948. Before that, the term Palestinian more often referred to JEWS in the area. But in 1948 the Jews started calling themselves Israelis, so the mishmash of Arabs in the area took over the term Palestinian. But a distinct people they are not!