Report from Sycuan

Report from Sycuan

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March 23, 2013

Editor’s note: The following report was composed and edited over a three-day period as new information became available. For purposes of clarity and accuracy, minor corrections were made, and a quote from one of the officials responsible for the meeting was added. None of these altered the main assertion of the report, which is that the gathering was unruly, and that misbehavior by some was allowed to disrupt an important meeting.

Regarding the composition of indigenous voices preparing for the 2014 United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), I have received disturbing reports from observers at the North American Preparatory Meeting held at Sycuan three weeks ago. Without getting into the recommendations emanating from the North American meeting to be considered at the Global Preparatory Indigenous Peoples Conference at Alta, Norway in June, it is essential at present to consider the dysfunctional process sanctioned by the UN, and incorporate our analyses of this and other events affecting the implementation of UNDRIP (the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), of which the WCIP is an integral part.

The WCIP was proposed by the State of Bolivia, and approved by the UN General Assembly.  It is the first conference since the passage of UNDRIP in 2007, where the states of the world will convene for the express purpose of considering recommendations from the indigenous peoples of the world specifically relevant to advancing indigenous self-determination.

The UN — an organization of states that excludes indigenous nations — has nevertheless established a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), a Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and a Global Coordinating Group (GCG) for the purpose of planning and convening the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. While the implementation of UNDRIP is of vital concern to indigenous nations, it is in the very nature of the UN design of addressing these vital concerns that indigenous nations find some of their greatest challenges.

To wit, the Global Coordinating Group  — responsible for coordinating the regional and global gatherings in advance of WCIP — was selected by the UNPFII, but hosting of the preparatory meeting at Sycuan was handled by the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus (NAIPC)–a group of individuals apparently from NGOs. According to the UNPFII report on the preparations and participation leading up to the WCIP, the UNPFII recommended in items #68-83 that indigenous nations, councils, institutions and parliaments be accredited to participate in the WCIP, but said nothing about the establishment,  selection or composition of a North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus.

The UNPFII members are appointed by UN member states. I could not locate any information on how the members of the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus were selected. While the caucus might be legitimate, the difficulty of locating information on the process of member selection, rules of participation and decision-making does not lend itself to building confidence in the process. What is clear is that hostilities at Sycuan were intense, and it thus behooves us to examine the process that led to them, in order to get things on track before the Global Conference in Norway.
As I note in my editorial Out of Control, NGOs — despite their good intentions — cannot develop constructive agreements to resolve indigenous nations’ grievances through the UN system. They can advocate, but not decide. While the invitation from GCG coordinator Debra Harry to indigenous nations delegates was welcoming, the  conduct of the preparatory meeting was reportedly a shambles. According to observers, some participants were insulting, intimidating and disrespectful toward others. What message the emissaries from the tribal nations took back to their peoples isn’t hard to imagine.

While we sometimes see this type of behavior in those unaccustomed to diplomacy, allowing disrespectful conduct to derail something as important as implementing UNDRIP is inexcusable. If participants are frustrated by the policies of governing authorities, then they should fight to change them; they should not be allowed to obstruct others who are trying to do so.

According to Kenneth Deer, the primary North America GCG coordinator appointed by the UNPFII, there was a faction at Sycuan that did not want to participate in the WCIP. So what were they there for, other than to obstruct the process for those who do?

This, and Deer’s remark about hostility displayed toward the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) delegates, confirms for me that some ideologues from NGOs were largely responsible for the hostilities, and should have been asked to leave by the coordinators if that was their position, as the whole purpose of the meeting was to prepare for the world conference.

As Mr. Deer put it, “The problem with the WCIP is that the states will come out with an outcome document that will be binding to states. We have to try everything we can to influence that document. And we can’t do that by staying away. We have to be there, lobbying and looking for allies, and there are some, who will not let the outcome document undermine UNDRIP.”

The UN, of course, has responsibility here, in that it has allowed — if not encouraged — a dysfunctional process to develop in regard to a vital concern to indigenous nations. Indeed, the UN — by neglecting its human rights obligations on this concern — has demonstrated its institutional disrespect toward indigenous nations. Alas, it is now up to indigenous nations to put things right. Whether they do that by working with the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus or not is up to them. Either way, it is time for indigenous NGOs to take their proper place in civil society as advocates, and leave the negotiating of UNDRIP implementation to those with the authority and capacity to do so. Otherwise, nothing productive can be achieved.

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