Thursday, December 23, 2010

At the Dec. 16 White House Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama announced that the United States is recognizing the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, also known as UNDRIP. The declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 13, 2007, with just four negative votes, coming from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Australia and New Zealand later reversed course, and Canada endorsed the declaration in November. America was the lone holdout of the four, until now.

UNDRIP was promulgated by the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, whose vice chairman, Tonya Gonnella Frichner, an Onondaga activist, said she was looking forward to “working with the United States as well as other countries toward full implementation of the Declaration with no reservations” (pun clearly not intended). She complained, “We have been uprooted from our lands, deprived of our natural resources and our cultures denigrated” and also said the declaration “points the way forward” to rectifying the situation. Despite caving by four holdouts, 11 countries, including Russia, abstained, and 34 countries - mainly from Africa but including Israel - skipped the original vote.

The bulk of UNDRIP contains harmless reaffirmations of equality and the kinds of rights that indigenous peoples, who are not defined in the document, already enjoy under the U.S. Constitution. Many of the concerns addressed deal with the right to speak traditional languages, wear traditional dress, practice traditional religions and the like, all of which people already are free to do in this country, whoever they are. The risky part, however, is that every assertion of a right is coupled with a statement that governments shall “take effective measures” to implement that right, which in practice means programs, payouts, regulations, oversight and all the attendant evils of bloated bureaucracy. It’s perfectly acceptable for people to try to preserve their disappearing cultures, but it’s unacceptable for taxpayers to have to foot the bill.

Some of UNDRIP’s articles are so vague that they promise virtually unlimited government largesse, such as Article 21: “States shall take effective measures and, where appropriate, special measures to ensure continuing improvement of [indigenous peoples’] economic and social conditions.” Those concerned that UNDRIP is a devious means to justify some form of reparations to American Indians for the sins Mr. Obama has declared the United States guilty of need look no further than Article 11. This proposition explicitly states that the government “shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”

Articles 26 through 28 are even more alarming. They deal in detail with the issue of the “lands, territories and resources which [indigenous peoples] have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” UNDRIP compels governments to “establish and implement, in conjunction with [the] indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process” for addressing historic land claims and asserts the “right to redress” for “confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged” lands. Compensation is to take the form of “lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.”

It would be easy to dismiss UNDRIP recognition as the type of symbolic gesture the embattled president has to make to placate his left-wing base. The declaration is not yet legally binding, but it lays the groundwork for the next stage in the process of codifying its mandates as international rights in an international convention or covenant. And even though UNDRIP is not binding, it plays to Mr. Obama’s personal sentiments and post-colonial worldview, and his administration is certain to formulate policies that treat the declaration’s mandates as compulsory even if they aren’t. UNDRIP is the ultimate “evil white man” guilt trip. For those who would wipe clean the past 400 years of “European colonization of North America,” this is the next best thing.

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