Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

Indigenous Rights: Still an ‘Uphill Struggle’

The first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples has opened at the United Nations in New York, amid hopes that the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will provide a solid framework to recognize and nurture their rights. Indigenous people are estimated to number up to 400 hundred million; they are present in dozens of UN member states. Yet few countries, in any, can claim to have achieved full equality for their indigenous citizens while protecting their identity and cultural heritage. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned of a persistent gap ‘between ideals and the circumstances facing most […] indigenous peoples’.

IDLO has a record of working for indigenous rights, whether supporting intercultural justice in Peru, formulating recommendations on reducing land-related conflicts in Guatemala, or promoting access to fair-trade markets for isolated communities in Ecuador. Earlier this year, the Organization outlined its rule-of-law based approach to indigenous issues in a statement at the UN’s Economic and Social Council; a full report is in preparation.

Ahead of this week’s conference,* IDLO News Editor Andre Vornic spoke to Edward John, one of the most outspoken voices in the UN system. Also known as Akile Ch’oh, Grand Chief John, who hails from the Tl’azt’en Nation in Canada’s British Columbia, is Vice Chair Person of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  During the conversation, he made it clear that he and his people expected a better deal in the post-2015 development agenda.

Grand Chief John: We’ve never received a fair deal – ever. That’s probably a truism. We’ve always have to fight for everything. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples took over 20 years to come to fruition. It’s always been an uphill struggle for indigenous people to ensure that minimum human rights are in place for their protection and advancement. And notwithstanding the Declaration, there is a growing effort on the part of UN agencies and on the part of states to water down these commitments and standards contained in it.

Andre VornicWhen did you personally realize that you had rights, and that they weren’t being respected?

GCJ: I grew up in a part of western Canada where we were the only people. That territory was our domain. And I saw that when we were building our cabins for winter – for trapping, for hunting, for fishing – officials from the government of British Columbia would come and burn our cabins down. In those days there were no jobs, except very seasonal; the cabins were our livelihood, and to disrupt our ability to provide for ourselves was a very serious violation of our rights. But we didn’t know this then – we just went and rebuilt it all, we had to survive. When I went to law school, I began to understand that there was a completely different legal system than what I grew up with.

AVDo you think it’s important to preserve a plurality of legal systems?

GCJ: Among states there is a plurality [of systems], and within states there is a plurality when it comes to indigenous peoples. I am happy to say that in Canada the Supreme Court has recognized that indigenous laws survived, and indigenous legal systems exist. The question is, of course, what are these laws? They are not taught in schools; lawyers are not trained in them; judges, in their interpretation, are not familiar with indigenous laws, so are not able to apply them. Having said that, the Supreme Court of Canada, in its decisions, has made it clear that the common law, together with indigenous laws, form a foundation for understanding what indigenous legal rights are.

AV: Things may have improved in Canada – but in many other places, they haven’t.

GCJ: Now, in Canada, […] when the Crown [ie, the government] makes decisions regarding mining or extractive industries or development on our territory, there is an absolute constitutional requirement that they consult indigenous peoples and obtain their consent. That is not the standard in most counties, and this leads to conflict – serious conflict in some instances. People are killed, leaders go missing. We hear it at the UN Permanent Forum every year. In many parts of the world, the rule of law seems not to exist.

AV: Intergovernmental negotiations on the draft SDGs stand to begin. What is your message to world leaders?

GCJ: Work with indigenous peoples, respect their rights, and ensure that they are recognized in all the states where they exist. World leaders also ought to realize that the traditional knowledge and teachings of indigenous peoples may help in alleviating and mitigating our rush towards a perilous future. Scientists have talked about where the environment is headed, yet politicians seem oblivious to their findings. But if you combine traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge, there will be, I think, a better understanding of what we ought to be doing.


* The conversation took place in New York in August 2014.