Friday, September 14, 2007

The Shape of Things to Come

The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Fate of the World

On September 13, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed the long-awaited Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, it has been hailed as a landmark step in global responsibility and in justifiable redress of longstanding wrongs perpetrated upon hundreds of millions of living people and their ancestors. And it augurs well for a new (yet perennial) way of reckoning the behavior of human society in this age of global interconnection, climate change and environmental degradation.

Significant in the voting were the "no" votes by the four main anglophone children-nations of imperial Britain: the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. What motivated them to vote no? Mere collusion? Or, perhaps something more pervasive and pernicious was at play through their being locked into an unnatural system of conflict resolution built upon the indirect and imperfect devices of "the law?" Their excuses for voting no had been based, in each case, on vague legalistic premises. Or has Bush's stormtrooper mentality sufficiently pervaded the halls of government of America's fellow anglophonic nation states through their common tongue and shared colonial histories, to set them onto such a path of fearful global regression?

Other dynamics were also at play among the Anglo Four. New Zealand, Australia and Canada, for example, are resistant to more national land being claimed by its indigenous peoples, while in the USA, the resources (read: coal, natural gas and uranium) of indigenous lands are being increasingly coveted by energy companies.

Not surprisingly, Russia also rejected the declaration (through the more passive strategy of abstaining from voting), given its huge indigenous populations and aggressive resource exploitation in their lands - a trait which it has in common with the USA, Australia and Canada.

Among the other nations that abstained from voting, Nigeria could well be included in this mentality (indigenous people are seen there as impediments to oil extraction in the Niger Delta, for example). Other abstentions, such as those of Samoa (an indigenous nation state after all) and the Georgian Republic, can be explained by their close ties and committments to the USA. Bhutan, which also abstained, is a monarchy having many indigenous Himalayan peoples. But monarchies, however well intentioned, are not necessarily prone to indigenous rights.

But there is even more at stake here than initially meets the eye. This declaration is the first and only universal statement on the matter having any strength (despite being termed solely an "aspirational" document). And in that regard it is seen as a threat to the very foundation underpinning the nation state system of human governance.

The rise of the nation state system was coterminous with the rise of global exploration and colonial settlement, which in turn severely damaged the world's indigenous peoples. As nation states arose, indigenous states, tribes, clans and bands went into steep decline. And as nation states spread their influence globally, indigenous lands and labor were exploited wholesale while death rates rose exponentially through foreign dominance of their homelands.

That the United Nations would pass such a declaration is a monumental shift in the relationship between the indigenous idea of society and polity - call it the perennial human system of communal existence in harmonious synchrony with a bioregion or watershed - and that of the indirect, heirarchic, trans-bioregional and extractive/exploitative system of governance and settlement, which is characteristic of the nation-state. Thus counted among the no-voters and two abstainers (Russia and Nigeria) are some of the world's most aggressively extractive nations.

Interestingly, other exploitative nation states such as Great Britain, China and Brazil had voted in favor of the declaration, probably reflecting internal socio-political dynamics. These deal less with a change of heart than domestic or international expediency including, new leadership in Britain, rising awareness in human and environmental rights in Brazil, and political considerations regarding alliances with "third world nations" by China as well as its competition with the USA and its sphere of nations.

But even more to the point, this declaration is the first recognition, after over 500 years of one way dominance, of the justifiable rights and bonafides of indigenous ways of existence. And it signals the return to a semblance of sanity in regard to reasonable intercultural relations and to the possibility of healthy diversity in human social, economic and political ways of being.

While this vote is a sad commentary on several descendant nations of Imperial Rome and their fellow travelers, it is a hopeful first step in restoring human balance in and with the world.

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on
-- have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear – what remains?
Nature remains.
-Walt Whitman-

UN Document