Understanding Their Roles

Understanding Their Roles

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April 12, 2013

Debra Harry, executive director of Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, and Arthur Manuel, chairman of Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, are highly respected indigenous NGO advocates, as is Andrea Carmen, executive director of International Indian Treaty Council. As professional lobbyists at UN agencies, their voices bring important issues to the attention of diplomats and bureaucrats who have influence over UN policy.

Indeed, Debra Harry was appointed  by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to the Global Coordinating Group responsible for organizing the North American Indigenous Peoples Preparatory Meeting in advance of the Global Conference in Norway this June, and the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to take place in New York in September 2014. Debra Harry and Arthur Manuel served as Co-Coordinators of the North American meeting, while Andrea Carmen is charged with reporting on the meeting in May at a UN-sponsored gathering in Madrid.

The problem, as I noted in my editorial The Right Direction, is that Debra Harry and Arthur Manuel’s misleading letter to the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus on April 11 is apparently intended to impress the UN with a consensus report that has no basis in fact. As such, they are only digging themselves in deeper by continuing with this farce. Perhaps their funding or reputations are threatened by their failure to achieve legitimate consensus at the North American meeting in Sycuan, but trying to conduct a cover-up after the fact will only make it worse. Someone needs to take them aside and recommend they rethink their misguided plan.

Making between $40,000 and $50,000 a year salaries, Harry and Carmen are hardly in the big leagues of NGOs financially, but with travel budgets for international conferences, they are nevertheless accustomed to a lifestyle grassroots indigenous activists can only dream of. I don’t know Manuel’s income, but he, too, seems able to participate in this milieu. While I am not suggesting any of them don’t earn their salaries, I am proposing that their determination to continue in their privileged international roles at the UN and elsewhere has perhaps blinded them to the impropriety of their current conduct regarding the World Conference process. Admitting their errors might not cost them their jobs, but it might affect their prestige.

Whatever their motivations, it needs to be made clear to Harry, Manuel and Carmen that their fraud, if continued, will not go unscrutinized. If they want their misfeasance to become malfeasance, all they have to do is stay on their present trajectory. At present, they don’t appear to understand the ramifications of their ill-considered decision.

In response to Harry and Manuel’s misleading April 11 letter, Kent Lebsock of Owe Aku International Justice Project wrote  “I guess there’s nothing we can say that will stop this horribly distorted process but it’s important to point out again that NAIPC speaks only for those who signed onto the report and/or statement and no one else.  There is no consensus, even within the so-called caucus, little alone amongst the nations and communities of Red Nations in North America.  I hope you all can find a way to respect that and the many voices that have voiced their objections to the process and the content.”  While Lebsock is correct in calling the process blessed by Harry and Manuel horribly distorted, he is perhaps surrendering too soon.

Given that Debra Harry serves on the Global Coordinating Group at the discretion of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and given that the preparatory meetings for the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is organized under its auspices as authorized by the UN General Assembly, there is a lot Lebsock and other indigenous voices can say to the president of that body. In terms of contact, the President of the UN General Assembly has already appointed Mr. John Henriksen, the international representative of the Sami Parliament of Norway, to facilitate the modalities and arrangements for the World Conference, including the substantive participation of indigenous peoples.

While there’s no guarantee Henriksen can resolve the present impasse, he might be able to help argue for a more authentic and democratic process from here on out, which would help indigenous nations immensely as they prepare their diplomatic missions to Norway and New York. It might even help to generate discussion at the Permanent Forum meeting in Madrid.

As I wrote in my editorial Making It Happen, modern states have served some purposes well, others not so. Since vital answers to humankind’s needs are apparently not coming from within the modern state apparatus, one place that is being investigated is within traditional governing systems of indigenous nations.  As we become increasingly adrift from our democratic moorings, perhaps we would benefit from taking stock of how we arrived at this impasse, and from reassessing the utility of modern states and the international institutions they in turn created.

Suffice to say that human development and international relations haven’t come to an end; nor is the United Nations, as an institution, the be all and end all when it comes to global organizations. We can create additional ones as we see fit. As we work to create a democratized international community, using our imaginations intelligently and constructively will create new opportunities for peaceful and more effective means of solving problems and resolving conflict. Coupled with our growing awareness of how we are governed and the need for change, all that is left is our resolve and commitment to making it happen.

As I noted in Getting It Right,  indigenous nations and modern states are in the process of resetting their relationship within the context of the evolving international human rights regime, and due to this resetting of relationships, the role of indigenous NGOs will also change. As each indigenous nation reasserts its sovereignty in self-determining its internal affairs and territorial jurisdiction, the indigenous NGOs will serve more as deliberating bodies and less as lobbying institutions.

While they played a vital role in helping modern states and indigenous nations lay the groundwork to end the colonial relationship that resulted from power imbalances that accrued between the time of 18th Century treaty-making and the present, they will soon need to serve more in a research and education mode, in order for their constituent indigenous governing bodies to resume their full responsibilities, unencumbered by the misperceptions dominant society and mainstream media associate with such notions as dominion and plenary power.

As indigenous nations reacquire their international legal status and resume their concordant responsibilities, they will continue to regroup into more appropriate regional bodies better-suited to their histories and needs, renewing their kinship-based indigenous identities and rejecting the institutional identities imposed on them by the legal constructs of colonial theories, boundaries and jurisdictions.

While the growing pains of political evolution are no doubt uncomfortable for those who’ve grown accustomed to colonial corporate states, the new attire of respectful relations will in time be a better fit. Someday — when tribes, institutions, markets and networks better understand their roles — we will perhaps wonder how we ever managed to get it so wrong.

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