An oft-heard criticism of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is that it’s an “aspirational” document, one with no teeth, enforceability or bearing in law, and thus a waste of time.
It is important to note that human rights are by nature, aspirational. They assert that we aspire to a higher code of ethics, a higher standard to which we hold our lives and our interactions with others.
While the UNDRIP does not yet have any force of international law or standards of practices, it is a significant marker, a placeholder in time. We take pause at this moment to appreciate the view—because to see where the UNDRIP may take us, we need to look back at where we’ve been.
The most important human rights milestone in our collective history is arguably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was taken up on the heels of the atrocities of World War II at the first session of the UN General Assembly in 1946.
Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, one of the nine members of the drafting sub-committee, wrote: “I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression…”
The UDHR was certainly aspirational. It had no basis in law, no manner by which one could enforce the provisions of the international community over a state actor.
What it did have, however, was the power inherent in the collective decision making process. The global community came together, gathered their political and social and religious leaders, put the value of human rights at the center of the table and said, “This is what we as a community aspire to…we may not be here yet, but this is where we intend to go.”
If we now look back over the arc of time of the last 63 years, we can see that what started as an aspiration has become grounded in “80 international human rights treaties and declarations, a great number of regional human rights conventions, domestic human rights bills, and constitutional provisions.” We now recognize the promotion and protection of human rights as normalized international law.
Thus the UNDRIP is not a stone throw in the dark, a hopeful pitch for what could be. It is drawing on the successful development of an international human rights paradigm over the last six decades, and therefore has provided a roadmap to follow.
Building a parallel system for the protection and promotion of Indigenous Rights may happen more quickly given modern technology and our newly hyper-connected world. But it still will require a longer-term commitment than afforded by tribal and state election cycles; it necessarily insists on holding a vision for future generations.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Prof. James Anaya, provides a simple formula: “Use the declaration for engagement with governments, with Congress, with the courts. Tribes need to use it with the outside world and within their communities…to build healthy relationships on all levels.”
There are a few notable examples of US tribes already engaged in the process, but it will take collective political will to advance the cause. As Seneca Nation President Robert Porter explains, “If only a handful of tribal nations exercise and utilize the rights that are recognized under the Declaration, it’s simply going to be a longer time horizon before it becomes ingrained in the consciousness of not just Native leaders but state actors that we’re trying to influence.”
The UNDRIP—and the movement it inspires—can provide an important missing piece of mainstream societies’ vision for the future as well. As Charlie Clements, Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government explains, “World leaders gathered together to draft the UDHR, but indigenous voices were notably absent. Perhaps if they had been at the table, collective rights and environmental rights and protections would have been included.” Clements sees the UNDRIP as an institutional fix for those omissions, with potentially far-ranging global impact.
If the global public isn’t paying attention yet, governments certainly are. Special Rapporteur Anaya observed that that “The UNDRIP presents a significant opportunity for indigenous peoples. It represents, at least in terms of policy, of the world community, a sea change in attitudes towards indigenous peoples…and it represents the aspirations of indigenous peoples for a better relationship with the societies that have built up around them.”
Thus we can see that the Declaration not only has significant potential, but that it has already injected indigenous rights and concerns into the global conversation.
Now is the time to insist that the standards originally put forth by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be carried out by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Let’s aspire that results won’t be 60 years in the making.
Lise Balk King is a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was previously co-publisher and executive editor of The Native Voice newspaper.