Obama: Make a fresh commitment to indigenous peoples
When President Obama meets with Indian and Alaska Native leaders Nov. 5, he should announce that he will embrace the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and work to adopt an American Declaration on the human rights of Native nations. As a starting point for improving the situation of Native nations, this country needs to affirm the fundamental rights of Native nations and individuals. It is a disgrace that the United States has not done so. The U.S. was one of just four countries to vote against the UN Declaration two years ago, and the United States is still following the Bush Administration orders not to negotiate on the American Declaration that is nearing completion in the Organization of American States.
Without a clear public commitment to respect fundamental rights, there is not likely to be any substantial change in the federal government’s continuing discriminatory and unjust treatment of Indian and Alaska Native nations. Without such a commitment to human rights, including treaty rights and federal constitutional rights, federal programs will be little more than temporary measures that can never overcome the economic hardship and deprivation that Native peoples endure. If there were a federal commitment to fundamental justice, Native nations could have a fair chance of overcoming the generations of federal mistreatment and mismanagement.
As a starting point for improving the situation of Native nations, this country needs to affirm the fundamental rights of Native nations and individuals.The White House should make that commitment and reverse the Bush policy of rejecting all measures for indigenous human rights. Native leaders deserve an answer Nov. 5 – a real commitment to respect the human rights of Native nations – and the best way to do this is to endorse the UN Declaration. Leaders of many Indian nations in the United States have demanded this for years, and they will surely demand it Nov. 5 as well.
Despite the pretended reasons for voting against the Declaration, the U.S. representatives at the UN publically agreed to practically all of the provisions of the UN Declaration. In the open negotiations, the U.S. delegation repeatedly voiced its support for most of the rights in the Declaration, because almost all these rights are already a part of United States law or are required by the U.S. Constitution.
Some of the provisions concerning land rights were actually proposed by the United States. The U.S. vote against the Declaration was dictated by the Bush policy of rejecting all new human rights commitments, not because of serious opposition to the provisions of the Declaration. The U.S. objections were hardly more than a cover story for voting “no” on human rights. The Obama administration should promptly reverse that stupid policy.
For many generations, the federal government has kept Native nations begging yearly for support to meet the crying human needs on reservations – while never making a formal commitment to respect the most basic rights to fairness, equality before the law, respect for treaty commitments, and self-determination.
I hope Obama will take this opportunity to reverse the senseless Bush policy and truly embrace the UN Declaration and the developing American Declaration.Native leaders have little choice but to lobby constantly for programs and appropriations that can provide jobs and other relief for desperate human needs in Indian communities. Leaders are also forced to seek “fixes” for seemingly endless new problems caused by federal wrong-doing related to their lands, their resources, their money and their self-government. But to end this sad cycle, Native leaders are also demanding – and they deserve – real respect for the fundamental rights that others enjoy, including the human rights contained in the UN Declaration.
I hope Obama will take this opportunity to reverse the senseless Bush policy and truly embrace the UN Declaration and the developing American Declaration.
And by the way, the OAS will have a negotiating session on the American Declaration in Washington, D.C. Nov. 30 – Dec. 2. I urge Indian and Alaska Native leaders to be there and participate in the negotiations. The Obama administration needs to be there too with a fresh and positive commitment to human rights for indigenous peoples.
Robert T. Coulter is executive director of Indian Law Resource Center.