Nations and states: Coexistence through subsidiarity

by August 1, 2013

Listening to mainstream and alternative media discuss conflicts between Fourth World nations and modern states, I think what most newscasters and their listeners have difficulty grasping is the historical context of the Indigenous liberation movement. As I noted previously, states formed throughout the last five hundred years of the colonial era are breaking down along cultural faultlines. Multiculturalism within homogenous states is evolving in fits and starts toward a plurinationalism that respects the sovereignty of Fourth World nations. Taking their cue from state-centric institutions like the UN, newscasters inevitably get it wrong.

In some federations of nations like the former Republic of Yugoslavia, the breakdown into Indigenous nation-states like Slovenia was not precipitated internally, but rather by external forces hoping to divide and conquer a functioning socialist republic for the benefit of transnational corporations. In other states like Canada, the Indigenous nations have been assimilated into a forced dependency from which they now seek to liberate themselves. In Indigenous nations like Pais Basque or Catalonia, autonomous governance in language, health, trade, policing and education would seem to be sufficient, although over time they may seek complete independence from Spain.

In the case of empires like the Soviet Union, dissolved into a combination of federations and independent states based on ancient nationhood — like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania — self rule affects varying levels of governance. In states like Bolivia, where the Indigenous population is a majority, autonomous first nations united within a plurinational state seem to have a chance of surviving with their cultures intact.

Despite lofty pronouncements like the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UN — an institution formed of, by, and for colonial states — is nevertheless actively opposed to the self-determination of Indigenous nations. Indeed, the UN has done all in its power to prevent Fourth World nations from even participating in discussions about climate change, biological diversity, or sustainable development.

As more Fourth World nations gain independence, autonomy, or some degree of self-governance, the ephemeral boundaries of states imposed by colonial powers will continue to shift with the winds of social change. The only thing that will remain constant is the ruthless psychological warfare exercised by transnational corporations and globalized militarism seeking to corrupt or undermine Indigenous sovereignty in order to exploit their resources. As non-Indigenous citizens of modern states formed by the theft of Indigenous territories become active in promoting democracy and opposing fraud, there is the potential for a powerful alliance between civil society and Indigenous liberation. Until they conceive of the difference between civil rights and human rights, however, that alliance will remain tenuous.

Reading In Pursuit of the Right to Self-Determination, a 2001 anthology edited by Y.N. Kly and D. Kly, the collected papers of the first international conference on the right to self-determination examined in part the indigenous movement as a means of democratizing the UN and the international system. With the 2007 adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, this movement continues to challenge the modern state system that denies the fulfillment of these rights. As First Nations in Canada threaten to interrupt the flow of timber, oil and hydropower extracted from their territories without their consent, this seems like a propitious time to reflect on the history of the UN vis-a-vis its role in the development of this aspect of the international human rights regime.

As noted by Andre Frankovits, the words self-determination appear in the 1948 UN Charter as an enunciated principle, as well as in the 1960 preambles to the International Covenants on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights/Civil and Political Rights, but with a major caveat in the Declaration on the Right to Development, “aimed at preventing any definition that is not based on the gaining of independence of the former colonies of the European powers.” Which shifted the focus away from the rights of peoples to those of governments.

Nevertheless, the UN did recognize that colonial, foreign and racist domination were situations in which the right to self-determination is applicable. It just wasn’t prepared at the time to recognize that indigenous nations were in this situation.

As Frederick Kirgis, Jr. wrote, there are degrees of self-determination, the legitimacy of each claim proportional to the level of democratic participation allowed by the government concerned. As Dr. Peter Wilenski observed, realization of the right to self-determination entails the continuing right to participate fully in the political process by which they are governed. But, as international legal scholar Christian Tomuschat notes, the emergence of international human rights law amounted to the general recognition that states that fundamentally fail to live up to their essential commitments lose legitimacy. Thus, the movement toward codification in constitutions of international human rights, and the creation of international courts and tribunals, has been to encourage state accountability.

As Erica-Irene A. Daes observed, the fundamental condition for realizing the right of self-determination in practice is trust between peoples, which is impossible without cooperation, dialogue and respect. As Kenneth Deer remarked, the whole idea that indigenous peoples don’t have the right to self-determination is racially based, and is ingrained into the very fabric of all the institutions of the Americas.

Article 1 of the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that all peoples have the right to self-determination, and by virtue of that right to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Even in 2013, six years after the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UN is unable to cope with the contradiction between the self-determination of indigenous nations and the sovereignty of modern states. Perhaps as Dina Gilio-Whitaker suggested in a column at Indian Country Today, indigenous self-determination for American Indian tribes could take the form of associated nations, exercising treaties and compacts that elevate their level of self-determination while advancing toward recognition of their international political status. An incremental approach that is nonetheless decolonizing.

As S.V. Kirubaharan noted, Western liberalism has always emphasized individual liberties, not the collective rights of indigenous peoples that are essential to their culture and lives. As the rights that give meaning to their lives, their destruction constitutes in essence a crime against humanity; when systematically terminated by a modern state, a de facto genocide.

As Majid Tramboo observed, democracy may mean little to an indigenous people whose political culture and traditions are different from those of the state. As such, the current conflict in Canada serves as a laboratory for the UN and its member states to break the conceptual impasse posed by state-centric bias.

In 1945, there were 46 international states; by 1993, there were 191. More than 90% of all states that ever existed ended in collapse. Since World War II, large states constructed through empires of old have been fragmenting into smaller states and nation-states like Latvia and Slovenia.

As Dr. Richard Griggs of the University of Cape Town observed in his 1999 paper The Breakdown of States, most multinational states are short-lived because they are incapable of generating a cultural life that is sustainable. Compare the longevity of some of the oldest states like Spain (500 years) with that of nations like Euzkadi (10,000 years) or aboriginal nations in Australia (40,000 years).

The endurance of nations, even under occupation, is sometimes so strong it can outlast numerous invasions and annexations: Latvia regained independence after 727 years, Ireland after 800 some years, Albania after 2,537.

Resistance to annexation and assimilation is based in national identity, and state expansion that attempts to deculture original nations are operating contrary to the natural order. Devolving state power to some form of coexistence through subsidiarity is a necessity brought on by the failure of assimilationist policies.

What this means is that state-building by annexation has come to a close, and further attempts by states to coerce or defraud indigenous nations will only make state collapse more onerous.