The United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City. Photo: Patrick Gruban

Steven Newcomb: Reflecting on a declaration on the rights of 'dominated' peoples

The United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Ten Years After

By Steven Newcomb

On September 13, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Now, ten years later, it is time to reflect on whether that U.N. document provides a means of reforming or altogether ending the system of domination that the United States and other state governments use against Indigenous nations and peoples.

The United States government, for example, holds Indigenous nations and peoples under a U.S.-contrived system of domination based on the ideas found in a number of documents issued by fifteenth century popes, and royal charters issued by various monarchs from Western Christendom. Those ideas of oppression have been woven into U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Unfortunately, the U.N. Declaration provides no means of solving this problem.

Within the context of the United Nations, the term “Indigenous” is defined in part as, “communities, peoples and nations” which have “a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies.” The words “invasion” and “colonial” are, of course, both terms of domination. The working definition further says that Indigenous nations and peoples “consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing.” The word prevailing is defined as “predominant,” meaning variously, “ascendant” and “dominating.” The U.N. definition further says that Indigenous peoples “form at present non-dominant sectors of society,” and the opposite of “non-dominant” is dominant or dominating.

What’s being celebrated this year, on September 13, 2017, is the adoption of a document that is more accurately called “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Dominated Peoples.” It’s a document predicated on the idea that certain “communities, peoples and nations” in the world have been subjected to the predicament of being forced to live in and under a state of domination because “peoples of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived” to their territory, the “new arrivals later becoming dominant [dominating] through conquest, settlement, or other means," according to a U.N. Human Rights fact sheet.

The United Nations is an organization that was formed by oppressive state governments. Each state is a framework and system of domination. As the German sociologist Max Weber put the matter one century ago, in his 1918 essay “Politics As A Vocation,” “force is a means specific to the state.” He further says that “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

“Like the political institutions historically preceding it,” writes Weber, “the state is a relation of men dominating men…” “If the state is to exist,” he continues,” “the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be.” “When and why do men obey? Upon what inner justification and upon what external means does this domination rest?” he asks. The state operates on the basis of what Weber terms “legitimations of domination.”

Unfortunately, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous (Dominated) Peoples provides no means of addressing these issues. It contains no language that will result in “non-dominant” Indigenous nations and peoples achieving liberation from any given “state” system of domination. Article 46, for example, says: “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, people, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the Charter of the United Nations.”

Nor, says Article 46, may the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples be “construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity of political unity of any sovereign and independent states.” In other words, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides no basis for, and no means of challenging the Domination Framework of “the State,” which is skillfully disguised by such terms as, “territorial integrity,” “political unity,” “sovereign,” and “independent states.”

A two-day event on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be held in Boulder, Colorado on September 13-14, at the University of Colorado School of Law. The event is being co-sponsored by Colorado Law and the Secretariat of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. It will be interesting to see whether the organizers are going to do their level best to ignore the way in which the Domination System of States treats Indigenous nations and peoples. That, in my view, would be a huge mistake.

The application of the domination code to nations and peoples termed “indigenous” needs to be explicitly addressed, along with the fact that the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is designed to not fundamentally question and challenge the global system of domination and its destructive and traumatic impacts on Original Nations and Peoples.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery  (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).

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