Obama not all in on indigenous rights

Official portrait of President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 13, 2009. (Photo by Pete Souza)
Official portrait of President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 13, 2009.
(Photo by Pete Souza)

While President Barack Obama has promised to improve relations between the federal government and Native American tribes, his administration’s tepid position in relation to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) shows there is still much to be done.

In hopes of addressing past and present injustices against indigenous people worldwide, the United Nations in 2007 presented the UNDRIP. While nearly every nation in the UN adopted this declaration, the United States alongside three other nations who were previously colonized by the United Kingdom originally voted against it.

According to a UN press release, it “represents the dynamic development of international legal norms and it reflects the commitment of the UN’s member states to move in certain directions.”

The UN describes it as setting “an important standard for the treatment of indigenous peoples that will undoubtedly be a significant tool towards eliminating human rights violations against the planet’s 370 million indigenous people and assisting them in combating discrimination and marginalization.”

The declaration “emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.” It “prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples” and “promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.”

Encouraging nations to work with indigenous people to solve global issues, like development, multicultural democracy and decentralization is the end goal.

In article 31 of the declaration it emphasizes that indigenous populations should be able to protect their cultural heritage and other aspects of their culture and tradition, which is vital in preserving their heritage.

While the United States, during the administration of President George W. Bush, voted against the adoption of the declaration, President Barack Obama changed the country’s position in 2010 to support.

Nevertheless, the official position of the United States regarding indigenous rights remains problematic.

One of the most important provisions in the declaration says that governments are required to receive indigenous peoples “free, prior, and informed consent” before embarking on any development project or other actions affecting their territory.

However, the White House issued a statement saying that “the US understands a call for a process of meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, but not necessarily the agreement of those leaders, before the actions addressed in those consultations are taken.”

The declaration isn’t legally binding under international law, its fundamental purpose is for the adopting nations to prove to their indigenous populations a will to work toward increased cooperation and ensure the protection of their human rights.

While Obama’s adoption of the UNDRIP can be considered to be in good faith, it lacks teeth and the language released by the White House statement is ultimately disingenuous.

A workshop in Washington bringing together Native advocates, academics and practitioners took place last week, with a focus of promoting a sincere adherence to the UNDRIP and rescinding the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery.

Titled “From Doctrine to Declaration,” the event highlighted issues currently facing Indian Country, such as child welfare, environment, treaty rights, federal recognition, and education.

They asserted these issues are a result of the Doctrine of Discovery, and that they can all be addressed by an adherence to the UNDRIP.

The over five-hundred year old doctrine is a moral rationale for the genocide that European powers inflicted on indigenous populations, characterizing them as subhuman savages and setting forth policies suggesting that Christian nations have a divine right to possess their land and resources.

The Romero Institute has launched a campaign to urge Pope Francis to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery.

Please help us with this important campaign by signing the petition.

Also please read our press release.

Please consider becoming a member of Lakota People’s Law Project and Romero Institute so we can continue our vital work in fostering the renewal of Indigenous people in South Dakota, the rest of the United States and throughout the world.

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