The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples: “Not OUR Conference”

The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples: “Not OUR Conference”

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January 5, 2015

History is always a matter of hindsight, and always subject to perspective; how you see it depends on your perspective. The “High Level Plenary Meeting to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples” (HLPM/WCIP, or WCIP for short), held on September 22-23, 2014, is now a historical fact. But what it actually accomplished is, to a large degree, a matter of opinion. And those opinions vary widely, depending on what people think the purpose of the WCIP was, who it was for, and why.

As a frequent contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network, I reported on the Outcome Document that was produced during the course of the WCIP (see this article summarizing the Outcome Document). Here I attempt a deeper analysis of the WCIP, taking note of some of the most significant issues and events leading up to the meeting and what it means for the future of indigenous peoples in the United Nations.

Perspective and Brief Background

Indigenous peoples’ (IP’s) participation in the WCIP was organized into seven regional caucuses, a women’s caucus, and a youth caucus (nine total), with their respective representatives organized as the Global Coordinating Committee (GCG). Altogether, these groups represented a wide swath of IP’s, all with similar though nonetheless diverse concerns and circumstances. The focus of my analysis will by default reflect a perspective as an English-speaking woman of North American indigenous descent.

I’ve been writing on the WCIP since 2013, when I was involved in the WCIP preparations in my role as associate researcher at the Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS). CWIS was contracted by the Quinault Indian Nation to assist in their international outreach efforts in the United Nations and in their diplomatic relations with foreign governments. After the contract terminated in early 2014, CWIS continued to assist other indigenous nations outside the United States in their preparations to participate in the WCIP and to help them develop strategies in dealing with state governments. In some cases, these were nations who were experiencing active persecution by dominant state governments.

One of the most significant aspects of the four-year long WCIP preparations was the eventual participation of indigenous governments—who, for the most part, were not involved until three years into the process. Throughout the history of IP’s engaging in the United Nations, the work has by and large been carried out by civil society groups in the form of non-governmental organizations. These NGOs’ accomplishments speak for themselves. Their influence on international conventions like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), International Labour Organization Convention 169, and the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues are all significant achievements that advance the human rights of indigenous peoples worldwide.

The concept of “human rights,” however, is a slippery slope for IP’s as fourth world nations, with governments of their own. In state-centric international law, human rights protection is considered within the purview of state governments; it is their responsibility to protect the rights of individual citizens, not nations. UNDRIP was the first international instrument to incorporate collective rights into its platform, with its language supporting the right to self-government, self-determination, and autonomy, augmented by the right of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC).

North American Region’s Demise

The concept of collective rights (and FPIC) was a source of conflict between IP’s and states throughout the 20+ years of the drafting of UNDRIP. It also became a point of contention between indigenous NGOs and individuals, and indigenous governments in the WCIP preparation process, particularly in the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus (NAIPC). Simply stated, it is a matter of accountability. While civil society NGOs and individuals have an important and much-needed voice at the United Nations, they are ultimately not bodies with political relationships to state governments. Fourth world nations (or, in the United States and Canada, tribal and band governments) are, and they alone are accountable to their citizens.

Unfortunately, the modern day configurations of tribal and band governments are a direct result of colonized relationships between state and indigenous governments. Today’s indigenous nations’ governments have disenfranchised many individuals from those governments, and indigenous nations from state governments, necessitating other ways to fight for rights recognition at the international level. NGOs have filled this role, but long term systematic exclusion has fueled fires of deep resentment for what is often perceived as “sell-out” colonial tribal governments. The NAIPC preparation process was characterized by these (and other) power struggles.

NAIPC’s demise in the WCIP process, however, was not due primarily to power struggles between civil society groups and tribal governments, but was a result of ideological intolerance for the United Nations’ procedural process. Because indigenous peoples’ “full, equal, and effective participation” was not being implemented according to their expectations, NAIPC called for the cancellation of the WCIP and for “all indigenous peoples everywhere” to withdraw their support—a call that went unheeded by all eight other caucuses and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

The WCIP Goes On

NAIPC’s withdrawal from the WCIP was something like being invited to your neighbor’s house for dinner and then leaving in a huff when you find out that what’s being served is something you hate. The United Nations is the home of state governments with indigenous peoples having little more status than a guest seat at the dinner table. There is no such thing as equal rights for indigenous peoples in the UN system.

“The WCIP was not our conference—Alta was,” Alyssa Macy,  the GCG representative for the Women’s Caucus, told Intercontinental Cry. Macy was referring to the IP’s preparatory conference held in Alta, Norway, which produced the Alta Outcome Document. The Alta document served as the official position statement advanced by IP’s from all the caucuses going into the WCIP. The Alta conference represents a pivotal historical moment where indigenous peoples—in all their diversity—came together from all seven geopolitical regions to collectively craft such a document. It was made possible through funding provided by the Sami Parliament.

“I came away from this process with lessons learned about how important global organizing is, and that you need resources to do it well,” Macy ruminated. “When you have strong regional entities doing representational and policy work like in the Arctic region with the Sami Council and the Sami Parliament, or in Greenland with the ICC [Inuit Circumpolar Council], it works better. When you have regions like North America where there is a divide, the organizing becomes incredibly difficult, if not impossible. That the Alta conference even happened at all was astounding, and it shows that we CAN organize internationally, and that we CAN agree on issues,” she said.

WCIP—Sham or Milestone?

Ironically, NAIPC’s withdrawal from the WCIP left a vacuum that North American Native governments (especially those in the United States) would, to some extent, fill. The conference was attended by the Navajo Nation, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Mashantucket Pequot Nation, Chickasaw Nation, and other American Indian and Alaska Native governments and related organizations.

Not surprisingly, the participation of Native government representatives at the WCIP has been bitterly criticized by some who were involved with NAIPC. Glenn Morris, professor of political science at University of Colorado at Denver and active in indigenous organizing at the United Nations since 1981, characterized the WCIP as a sham, and the participation of Native nations’ officials as “flagrantly ingratiating.” Among those “flagrantly ingratiating” themselves to the United States State Department, says Morris, were the National Congress of American Indians, Native American Rights Fund, Indian Law Resource Center, and International Indian Treaty Council. These, and other “tribal government reps,” according to Morris, are the “good Indians” while NAIPC members are the “bad/hostile Indians.”

Oddly, he goes on to lament the State Department’s exclusion of NAIPC members from the communications loop and the denial of funding to them—which Morris describes as “the censoring of oppositional voices.” This is curious given that NAIPC withdrew itself from the process, and it begs the question: even though NAIPC excused itself from the WCIP process, why is it a problem that its members were denied funding and excluded from the communications? Why should they have been entitled to those things when they made a clear statement they weren’t interested in being part of the process?

Another high profile critic of the WCIP, Steven Newcomb, concurs with Glenn Morris that the Outcome Document (OD) produced by the WCIP fell far short of addressing some of the bigger issues indigenous peoples face. Newcomb is best known for his work highlighting the ways states maintain domination over indigenous peoples. He, like Morris, correctly writes that the OD was not a consensus document (because NAIPC withdrew) and was instead a state-driven, state-controlled process (it hardly needs pointing out that it would’ve been even with NAIPC’s participation). Predictably, Newcomb informs us that how indigenous peoples are to liberate themselves from state domination was not a topic of discussion at the conference. In Morris’s more pointed critique, some of the most offensive aspects of the OD are its failure to mention self-determination, or to dismantle the doctrine of discovery.

Alyssa Macy addressed Morris’s critique: “In order for us to go through this process and have states agree to it [recommendations for the OD] there were things that couldn’t be included to ensure that they weren’t watered down. The issue of self-determination was one of them. Did anybody stop to think that this was not our process and we could’ve had something terrible come out of this? We should never expect anything revolutionary to come out of the United Nations,” she laughed, but was dead serious.

If the response to the WCIP by Glenn Morris and Steven Newcomb was cynical, and Alyssa Macy’s cautious, there were others who conversely viewed it with unguarded optimism. Robert Coulter, Staff Attorney and founder of the Indigenous Law Resource Center, for example, in a private communication called it a “great success.” ”We now have concrete commitments by the UN and member states that protect and promote the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  In short, we have reached another milestone in the movement to achieve and realize our rights.  Yet, we are just as responsible as states to see to it that the commitments in the outcome document are carried into effect in the months to come,” Coulter’s message read.

Will Miklin, 1st Vice President of the Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, was active in the WCIP preparation process early on. He characterized the WCIP as “concrete action to benefit indigenous peoples.” While acknowledging the that UN process is far from perfect, Miklin praised the four-part strategy reached in the Outcome Document as “victories [which are] few and far between.”

The Road Ahead

With such widely varying opinions about the WCIP—from disdain on one end of the spectrum to optimism on the other—how are we to assess its actual outcome? Echoing Alyssa Macy, it’s fair to say that nothing revolutionary came from the WCIP. Compromises were made by indigenous peoples to prevent any erosion of what already fragile rights and political standing states do recognize for IP’s. States, on the other hand, were cautious to use language in the Outcome Document that does not impart too much power to IP’s. This was revealed in the drafting process of the OD, in its first incarnation as the Zero Draft. See this link to view comments states made during the revision process.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms the right to self-determination and for indigenous peoples to “freely determine their own political status,” as well as other important rights often historically denied by states. While the Declaration is not considered binding international law at this point in time, it does represent an important set of minimum standards to which indigenous peoples aspire and states, in theory, support. States challenging the meaning of concepts like “self-determination” is one of the biggest obstacles to the realization of UNDRIP’s principles.

IP’s freely determining their own political status is more a journey than a destination, and the WCIP was one step on that journey. The question that must be asked is: how do IP’s determine their political status, especially in the face of state-controlled power? The unfortunate reality is that while UNDRIP affirms certain rights, the United Nations is nevertheless constructed on the historical foundation of five centuries of colonialism. With all its talk of rights, it is still a state-centric institution and like the fox guarding the proverbial hen house, states are the gatekeepers for how those rights are implemented. Ensuring the implementation of those rights must and will be a process of negotiation between IP’s and states for years to come.

If legitimacy implies accountability, negotiation between IP’s and states can only legitimately occur at a governmental level, between state and indigenous governments (as opposed to NGOs comprised of individuals with accountability to no one). The Alta Document called for the creation of an UNDRIP implementation mechanism which states ultimately rejected in the OD. One of the most significant aspects of the Outcome Document, as diluted as the language became, however, was the recognition of IP’s “representative institutions” (originally framed in the Alta Document as “governments”). This constitutes a potential opening for the creation of new intergovernmental processes whereby implementation of indigenous rights can be negotiated, at least until a future UN-based international body is formed to monitor UNDRIP implementation.

Somewhere between callous disdain and exuberant optimism we can find a realistic assessment of the WCIP. We must remember that it was a UN Member State (Bolivia) who called for the WCIP in the first place, not IPs. If we view the elevation of indigenous rights in the international arena as a matter of political strategy—not just a set of legal guarantees—then we’ll be less disappointed at the length of time it will take to achieve a paradigm shift significant enough to realize such guarantees.

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