What has been left
out of reports and analysis in both the mainstream press and among anti-imperialists and leftists about the triumph of Evo
Morales' election as President of Bolivia is the role played by the three-decade international indigenous movement that preceded
it. Few are even aware of that powerful and remarkable historic movement, which springs from generations of grassroots organizing.
If the left, particularly
the Latin American left, misses this point, it's a shame, as mistrust of and racism against the indigenous nations has been
the Achilles heel of previous revolutionary movements in Latin America (as well as North America).
Indeed, some indigenous
activists and organizations in the Andean region are wary of Evo Morales because of his left politics and alliances, for the
very reason that the Latin American left has so consistently either ignored indigenous issues and aspirations, or used the
indigenous and tossed them aside (recall that the liberation armies of Bolivar and San Martin and the independence movement
and 20th century revolution in Mexico, as well as the recent Guatemalan revolution, were made up of indigenous foot soldiers).
The burden is on
the American (and I mean Western Hemisphere) left to catch up with what has been going on with the indigenous movement in
order to understand the victory of Evo Morales, which is a victory for the indigenous peoples of the world AND for anti-imperialism/anti-capitalism.
If there is ever to be socialism and just societies in the Americas, the leadership and form of it must come from the indigenous
peoples. Peruvian communist pioneer, José Carlos Mariátegui recognized this reality, and it's time to take another look at
past and future strategies and not just pay guilty lip service to the "plight" of indigenous peoples.
Here's a short history,
with references for further study, of the international indigenous movement.
In 1972, the United
Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (now called Sub-Commission on the
Protection of Human Rights) commissioned the "Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations. A member
of the Sub-Commission, Ambassador José R. Martínez Cobo of Ecuador, was selected as Rapporteur. The Study was completed a
decade later in 1982, having taken longer than any other study in the history of the United Nations.[i] This essay covers
that same period, particularly the last five years of that decade during which indigenous representatives took control of
the new item on the UN human rights agenda.
This was not an auspicious beginning. The Sub-Commission is composed of
26 "independent experts," who serve technically in their own capacity, but are elected by the UN Commission on Human Rights
from nominations made by UN member states.[ii] The Commission on Human Rights, the parent body of the Sub-Commission, is composed of UN member
states, as is the Commission's parent, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), a parallel body to
the UN General Assembly that focuses on human rights and social issues. Although the Sub-Commission's original mandate was
to prepare comprehensive reports in the areas of discrimination and minorities, it actually did much more, making dozens of
resolutions to the Commission regarding all aspects of human rights. For that reason, the name of the Sub-Commission was changed,
without changing its structure and status.
All the Sub-Commission
members are close to, or work within, the foreign ministries of their respective governments. Several members also serve as
their nations' representatives to the UN Commission on Human Rights. However, despite that, the Sub-Commission is the only
official body of the UN in which non-governmental organizations (hereafter NGOs) are able to enjoy full access and participation.
However, the NGOs were required to have official recognition and consultative status under ECOSOC, which required an arduous
process of application and approval by consensus. Also, human rights issues, as well as development and disarmament, are centered
at United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, an expensive and inaccessible site for indigenous peoples.
the first stages of the study on Indigenous Peoples, governments were sent lengthy questionnaires, which formed the basis
of monographs on state practices. The Rapporteur also had the authority to solicit of receive information from experts and
ECOSOC-recognized NGOs. During each annual session of the Sub-Commission, which annually convenes in Geneva for the month
of August, interim reports on the study were submitted in the form of chapters.
Between the 1975
and 1978 sessions, no reports were submitted, and it seemed that the study, whose reports had not been met with any great
enthusiasm on the part of the Sub-Commission members, would simply be discontinued. Martínez Cobo was no longer a member of
the Sub-Commission, and none of the members appeared interested in reviving the study. However, the 1977 International Conference
on Indigenous Peoples of the Americas asked, among other things, that the Sub-Commission establish a Working Group on Indigenous
Populations. Thus, the conference and direct participation of indigenous representatives revived the study and stimulated
new interest in the question. Martínez Cobo, as an outside expert, was appointed to complete the study.
used by the Sub-Commission for the study, and the definition that persists is the following:
are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially
at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them,
and, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduces them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in
conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country
of which they now form part, under a State structure which incorporates mainly the national, social and cultural characteristics
of other segments of the population which are predominant.
In its elaboration
of the definition, the Sub-Commission made it clear that the subordinate position of such groups is unrelated to population
figures; equally, it is irrelevant whether the groups live in more than one country or are scattered throughout a particular
country. On the other hand, the study took into account the factor of circumstance that established the particular relationship
between the state in question and the indigenous group under study, as well as the national and cultural characteristics that
form the basis of the state structure.
The definition's fundamental consideration was the existence of certain groups
prior to the establishment of the state, as well as whether the original inhabitants and their descendants are regarded as
indigenous in relation to the colonizers and their descendants. As long as the group remains so identified, the degree of
racial intermixing with the colonizers or any other group is not relevant, removing the possibility of racial identification
The definition of indigenous also assumed that the original groups or their descendants were compulsively forced
within the new state structure when it was established, and had no voice in creating it. In general, although not in all cases,
the definition would apply to groups who are rural and whose land ownership systems are based on the clan or community, not
on private ownership, and whose land base is not recognized as a nation.
The time-scale established relates to whether
the group was present at the time the colonizers arrived, not whether they had always been there or had migrated there from
other regions in pre-colonial periods:
This study is not concerned
with the question of establishing who may have been the original inhabitants of a country or region…in most countries
at least substantial groups of the present inhabitants are descendants of people who arrived there from other parts of the
world at one time or another.[iii]
uses the terminology, "present territory of a country," rather than "country," explaining that it is doubtful whether, at
the time of first contact, the country existed as a state or had the same territory as today. In explaining the terminology,
"by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition," the analysis clarifies this
as meaning simply "by colonization."
In reference to the phrase, "who today live more in conformity with their particular
social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part,"
the elaboration is worth reproducing in full:
No existing indigenous
population can validly be said to conform to institutions it has maintained, unchanged, since the time of the conquest, settlement
or other form of reduction to a non-dominant or colonial condition. What are now known as 'indigenous institutions' are a
mixture, in varying degrees, of colonial and precolonial institutions as adapted by the indigenous populations to their new
condition. Nevertheless, it is necessary to indicate that indigenous populations 'today live more in conformity with their
particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now
form part.' This wording seeks to avoid any characterizations of the customs and t4raditions beyond the fact that they are
'particular' to such groups, not whether they were originally their own or not.[iv]
The analysis makes clear
that the definition is not intended to attack the very existence of state structures when it characterizes them as mainly
reflecting the national, social and cultural characteristics of the dominant segments of the population, but rather that the
reference is to the reality of the "non-neutral State structure." The study identifies this as the crux of the problem and
calls for protective measures favoring the indigenous populations.
Due to its long and unusual history, the study is
more like two separate studies. The first part of the Sub-Commission study, based on reports from the first three years of
the study, 1973-75, is dry and legalistic, as well as being paternalistic in that indigenous peoples were not involved. It
nevertheless contains important material and constitutes an archive on state policies and claims. The second part of the study
is more dynamic and balanced, with the inclusion of material from indigenous organizations and experts and other non-governmental
The first interim report[v] submitted to the Sub-Commission's 1973 session contains all measures adopted
by the UN that are applicable to indigenous peoples, including the UN Charter. The International Labor Organization (ILO)
1953 Convention on Tribal and Indigenous Populations was analyzed in detail. More importantly, three other international treaties
were taken up: The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment for Genocide; the Convention on the Abolition of Slavery,
the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery; and the International Convention on the Elimination of
All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In addition, actions and initiatives by all organs of the UN are reviewed, together with
actions taken by its specialized agencies.
The 1974 report[vi] outlines
actions taken by the Organization of American States (OAS), the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, and the Interamerican
Indian Institute. Finally, it began preliminary consideration of certain substantive aspects of the problem of discrimination
against indigenous peoples in the areas of housing, political rights, religious rights and practices, protection of sacred
places and objects, and protection of places and objects of archaeological interest.
The 1975 report[vii]
was structured around the governments' questionnaire responses as well as information from experts.
The first issue
dealt with was definition. The definition of indigenous populations was analyzed in terms of ancestry, culture, religion,
the fact of living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, livelihood, language, group consciousness,
acceptance by the indigenous community, residence in certain parts of the country, legal definitions, change in status from
indigenous to non-indigenous and vice versa, registration and certification, and the decision-making authority in deciding
who is and who is not indigenous. The report also dealt with population, both composition and statistical trends, although
the analysis was superficial and incomplete.
After two years of no
reports, the study resumed in 1978, and the report from the following years, up to the final report in 1982, reflect the participation
of indigenous representatives.
Two important individuals behind the scenes in Geneva played key roles in incorporating
indigenous peoples into the UN human rights agenda. One was Augusto Willemsen-Diaz, a Guatemalan international law specialist
and longtime staff member of the UN human rights secretariat. Although not Mayan himself, Willemsen-Diaz was preoccupied with
the situation of the Mayan people who comprised the majority of the Guatemalan population, a situation that would soon turn
into state genocide against them. He befriended and convinced Martínez Cobo to propose the Sub-Commission study of indigenous
Willemsen Diaz also made
certain that indigenous peoples be a category in the UN Decade to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Apartheid, which
began in 1974[viii]. The Decade focused on apartheid in South Africa, but also dealt with peoples living under military occupation
and migrant workers. His goal was to build a base of documentation upon which indigenous peoples could construct infrastructure
within the UN system. Willemsen Diaz was the actual architect of the Sub-Commission study and the definition of indigenous
peoples for the study. Until his retirement, and even afterwards, Willemsen-Diaz served as an unpaid consultant to indigenous
peoples at the United Nations, mentoring the initial activists, including this writer.
The other influential
individual was Jimmie Durham, a Cherokee and a successful sculptor and artist, who lived in Geneva during the late 1960s and
early 1970s when his wife worked for the World Council of Churches, which is based in Geneva. This was a time of national
liberation movements for decolonization, particularly in Africa, inspired and emboldened by Vietnamese resistance to United
States' aggression. In Geneva, Durham befriended a number of the African liberation leaders who came there to present their
cases at the UN, including Amilcar Cabral of PAIGG, the liberation front in Guinea Bissau, the African National Congress (ANC)
and Southwest Peoples Liberation Organization (SWAPO) of southern Africa, and those of Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. From
afar, Durham followed the birth of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the United States, from the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz
to the 1972 seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington DC, and, most importantly, the over two month siege
at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation. He returned to the United States at that time, met with AIM leaders and
proposed an international project that was realized in the June 1974 founding of the International Indian Treaty Council,
(IITC) which Durham headed for the following six years, gaining ECOSOC non-governmental organization status for the IITC in
1977. Even before that, Durham had persuaded some of the most important international NGOs to sponsor a conference on Indians
of the Americas at UN offices in Geneva. These organizations included the World Council of Churches (WCC) the World Peace
Council (WPC), the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ),
At the same time,
the National Indian Brotherhood of Canada, headed by George Manuel, the National Congress of American Indians in the United
States, headed by Joe de la Cruz and Phillip (Sam) Deloria, and the Nordic Sami ("Lapland") Council had founded an international
NGO, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), that gained ECOSOC status in 1977.
The key event that marked the
beginning of indigenous peoples' direct activity in the international context was the 1977 International Non-Governmental
Organizations' (NGO) Conference on Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, held at United Nations' offices in Geneva. The more
than one hundred Indigenous representatives from all over the western hemisphere reflected organized forces of inestimable
The conference was initiated by the International Indian Treaty Council[ix] and was organized by the NGO
Sub-Committee on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Apartheid, and Colonialism, of the Special NGO Committee on Human Rights,
based in Geneva. and made up of an influential and broad based group of international NGOs. More than fifty international
NGOs with Consultative Status in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) registered for the conference, and thirty-eight
UN member nations officially participated. The conference formulated a program of action[x] for NGOs with recommendations
to submit all documents to divisions of the UN.[xi] The twelfth of October ("Columbus Day") was declared International Day
of Solidarity and Mourning with Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, with a view to establishment of a permanent United Nations'
day honoring indigenous peoples.[xii]
The recommendations included a call for respect for traditional law and customs,
and for unrestricted rights of land ownership and control over natural resources by indigenous peoples in their territories.
The conference found that indigenous peoples in the Americas have the right to own land communally and manage it according
to their traditions, and that such ownership must be recognized and protected in international as well as national laws. Governments
of all the states of the western hemisphere were called upon to ratify the Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations'
human rights conventions. A recommendation was made for the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection
of Minorities to establish a Working Group on Indigenous Peoples. This recommendation was taken up in the 1981 session of
the Sub-Commission, and was approved by the Commission on Human Rights and ECOSOC in their 1982 sessions. The newly established
Working Group on Indigenous Populations met for the first time in August 1982.
The indigenous representatives participating
in the 1977 conference in all night sessions hammered out a document that they submitted collectively. This document, entitled
"Draft Declarations of Principles for the Defense of the Indigenous nations and Peoples of the Western Hemisphere,"[xiii]
represents the dominant theme of the conference and set the basis for subsequent UN negotiations regarding the question of
indigenous peoples. The declaration contains 13 brief and unequivocal statements of indigenous rights:
of Indigenous nations: Indigenous people shall be accorded recognition as nations, and proper subjects of international law,
provided the people concerned desire to be recognized as a nation and meet the fundament requirement of nationhood, namely:
(a) having a permanent population; (b) having a defined territory; (c) having a government; (d) having the ability to enter
into relations with other states.
(2) Subjects of
International Law: Indigenous groups not meeting the requirements of nationhood are hereby declared to be subjects of international
law and are entitled to the protection of this Declaration, provided they are identifiable groups having bonds of language,
heritage, tradition, or other common identity.
(3) Guarantee of
Rights: No indigenous nation or group shall be deemed to have fewer rights or lesser status for the sole reason that the nation
or group has not entered into recorded treaties or agreements with any state.
of Independence: Indigenous nations or groups shall be accorded such degree of independence as they may desire in accordance
with international law.
(5) Treaties and
Agreements: Treaties and other agreements entered into by indigenous nations or groups with other states, whether denominated
as treaties or otherwise, shall be recognized and applied in the same manner and according to the same international laws
and principles as the treaties and agreements entered into by their states.
of Treaties and other Rights: Treaties and agreements made with indigenous nations or groups shall not be subject to unilateral
abrogation. In no event may the municipal laws of any state serve as a defense to the failure to adhere to and perform the
terms of treaties and agreements made with indigenous nations or groups. Nor shall any state refuse to recognize and adhere
to treaties or other agreements due to changed circumstances where the change in circumstances has been substantially caused
by the state asserting that such change has occurred.
No state shall assert or claim to exercise any right of jurisdiction over any indigenous nation or group unless pursuant to
a valid treaty or other agreement freely made with the lawful representatives of indigenous nation or group concerned. All
actions on the part of any state which derogate from the indigenous nations' or groups' right to exercise self-determination
shall be the proper concern of existing international bodies.
(8) Claims to Territory:
No state shall claim or retain, by right of discovery or otherwise, the territories of an indigenous nation or group, except
such lands as may have been lawfully acquired by valid treaty or other cessation freely made.
of Disputes: All states in the Western hemisphere shall establish through negotiations or other appropriate means a procedure
for the binding settlement of disputes, claims, or other matters relating to indigenous nations or groups. Such procedures
shall be mutually acceptable to the parties, fundamentally fair, and consistent with international law. All procedures presently
in existence which do not have the endorsement of the indigenous nations or groups concerned, shall be ended, and new procedures
shall be instituted consistent with this Declaration.
(10) National and
Cultural Integrity: It shall be unlawful for any state to take or permit any action or course of conduct with respect to an
indigenous nation or group which will directly or indirectly result in the destruction or disintegration of such indigenous
nation or group or otherwise threaten the national or cultural integrity of such nation or group, including, but not limited
to, the imposition and support of illegitimate governments and the introduction of non-indigenous religions to indigenous
peoples by non-indigenous missionaries.
Protection: It shall be unlawful for any state to make or permit any action or course of conduct with respect to the territories
of an indigenous nation or group which will directly or indirectly result in the destruction or deterioration of an indigenous
nation or group through the effects of pollution of earth, air, water, or which in any way depletes, displaces or destroys
any natural resources or other resources under the dominion of, or vital livelihood of an indigenous nation or group.
Membership: No state, through legislation, regulation, or other means, shall take actions that interfere with the sovereign
power of an indigenous nation or group to determine its own membership.
All of the rights and obligations declared herein shall be in addition to all rights and obligations existing under international
could be characterized as the fundamental political document of the international indigenous movement, and would provide the
basis for the elaboration of the Draft Declaration of Principles for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Working Group
on Indigenous Populations that became the subject of a decade of negotiations in the Commission on Human Rights, remaining
Another recommendation made by the 1977 conference was to its own constituency to organize a conference
that would focus on the land and its relationship to indigenous rights, broadening the geographical scope to global. The NGO
Sub-Committee on Racism followed through with this directive and organized the International NGO Conference on Indigenous
Peoples and the Land, which was held from 15-18 September 1981 at the UN in Geneva.
The 1981 conference was organized
into four commissions, whose individual reports made up the final report, covering the following areas: land rights, international
treaties and agreements; land reform and systems of tenure; indigenous philosophy; and the impact of nuclear arms build-up.
Five indigenous international and regions groups were invited to solicit and submit documentation for the conference and to
organize delegations: the International Indian Treaty Council; the World Council of Indigenous Peoples; and the South American
Indian Council (CISA); the Australian National Conference of Aborigines; and the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC), and the
Inuit Circumpolar Conference.[xiv]
Participants in the 1981 conference included 150 indigenous representatives from
the Americas, as well as aboriginal representatives from Australia and Sami delegates from Norway. Fewer governments participated
officially than in 1977, due at least in part to the call by the Reagan administration for a government boycott of the conference.
Among Western countries, only the government of Norway registered, although other governments were present unofficially, and
dozens of African, Asian, and Latin American governments registered and attended. Nearly 50 international NGOs with consultative
ECOSOC status registered. Dozens of scholars and experts participated as individuals.
A striking aspect of the 1981
conference was the active participation of several national liberation organizations, including the Palestine Liberation Organization
(PLO) and the Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), with the latter representative chairing the Commission on Transnationals.[xv]
The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front/Revolutionary Democratic Front of El Salvador (FMLN/FDR) also participated,
and special sessions were held on El Salvador, Angola, Namibia, and Nicaragua. The government of Nicaragua sent a special
delegation headed by Comandante Lumberto Campbell, Vice-Minister for the Atlantic Coast, and representatives of the Miskitu
and Sumu indigenous communities.
The participants unanimously supported the conference's final declaration and resolutions,
which manifested solidarity with indigenous peoples in their "just struggle for self-determination and for the right to determine
the development and use of their land and resources, and to live in accordance with their values and philosophy."
One of the excuses for
the Reagan administration boycott was the presence of Romesh Chandra of the World Peace Council (WPC) as president of both
the 1977 and 1981 conferences, and Edith Ballantyne, Secretary General of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
(WILPF) as the Secretary. The Reagan administration accused Chandra and the WPC of being a Soviet front, and Ms. Ballantyne
and WILPF of being Soviet dupes. These were also the days of the Cold War and binary politics in the United Nations. This
had not been an issue in 1977 with the Carter administration, which was claiming to champion international human rights. President
Carter's UN representative, Dr. Andrew Young, a high profile African American civil rights leader, cooperated to some extent
with the IITC in organizing the 1977 conference, although he expressed his displeasure with the initiative. The Carter administration
sent two activist Native Americans, Kirk Kickingbird and Shirley Hill Witt, as members of their delegation. At the time, IITC
people were suspicious of the cooperation and kept the administration at arms length to remain independent. The Reagan administration
was just the opposite, and the going was tough during those eight years. Yet, much would be accomplished.
Jimmy Durham had
set the stage for the IITC to be linked with The Non-aligned Movement (NAM), the organization of African, Asian, and Latin
American/Caribbean states and national liberation organizations that had been founded by Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt,
and Tito of Yugoslavia in the 1950s, in order to avoid the Cold War binary and stake out an autonomous path for decolonization,
nation-building, and economic development. United States' administrations consistently charged that the Non-Aligned Movement
(NAM) was a tool of the Soviet Union. However, it was a fact that the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc always voted in the
UN on the side of NAM, not the reverse. The NAM states were a varied lot with many different systems of governance, only a
few, such as Cuba, being actual Soviet allies.[xvi] The other international indigenous NGOs eschewed the NAM linkage and rather sought allies in the North Atlantic
of the Reagan administration, the Sub-Commission in its 1981 session discussed the next step on the completion of its study
on indigenous peoples, and decided to recommend to the Commission on Human Rights that a Working Group on Indigenous Populations
(WGIP) be established within the Sub-Commission. The Human Rights Commission approved the working group in its 1982 session,
as did ECOSOC. The Working Group met for the first time in 1982. Tribute for this action must be paid to the head of UN Human
Rights, Dr. Theo van Boven, who was promptly pushed out of his post by the Reagan administration due to his advocacy for the
Working Group and for other human rights initiatives.
The mandate of the WGIP is spelled out in the UN resolution that
The WGIP would
meet annually up to five working days--this soon increased to ten working days--before the annual sessions of the Sub-Commission.
Its task was to review developments concerning the promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of
indigenous populations, and "especially" information from indigenous peoples. The conclusions from such reviews were to be
submitted to the Sub-Commission. The terms of the resolution were open and broad, despite attempts by various governments
to narrow the task to establishing legal standards and writing a convention, both of which could be taken up within the broader
mandate. Importantly, the resolution called for open attendance by indigenous representatives regardless of ECOSOC consultative
status. The WGIP was, and is, made up of five members of the Sub-Commission, chosen by the Sub-Commission and appointed by
At its first meeting
in 1982, the WGIP discussed its mandate and reiterated its broad nature. The problem of definition was discussed, as were
standards. Several areas of concern were identified and discussed and these were summarized in the Final Report under seven
categories: a) the right to life, to physical integrity and to security of the indigenous communities; b) the right to self-determination,
the right to develop their own culture, traditions, language and way of life; c) the right to freedom of religion and traditional
religious practices; d) the right to land and to natural resources; e) civil and political rights; f) the right to education;
and g) other rights.[xix]
Observers at the
first meeting of the WGIP included the governments of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Morocco, New Zealand, Nicaragua,
Panama, Sweden, the USA, North Yemen, and the PLO. Also represented in the session were several UN specialized agencies, including
the International Labor Organization (ILA) and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The three indigenous organizations
holding UN consultative status were present, as well as ten indigenous organizations without such status, eight of them from
North America. The South American Indian Council (CISA) was represented by its Director. The ECOSOC NGOs that had organized
the 1977 and 198l conferences sent representatives, as did numerous NGOs that had not in the past shown an interest in issues
concerning indigenous peoples. Soon, they would take up indigenous issues within their own organizations.
Despite the explosive
and sensitive issues involved, a remarkable unanimity pervaded the establishment of the WGIP and its first meeting, certainly
due in part to the excellent leadership of its elected chairman, Ajsborn Eide, a Norwegian and Sub-Commission expert-member.
Some observer pointed out that the presence and participation of representatives of indigenous groups was the key factor that
did not allow the WGIP to become politicized along East-West Cold War lines.
However, it was
the presence and testimony of Rigoberta Menchú Tun[xx], a Mayan leader in exile from Guatemala that galvanized that first
meeting and set the tone of urgency that has remained inherent to WGIP meetings. Menchu's parents and brother had been murdered
by the Guatemalan military in 1980, driving her and her other siblings into exile where she became the most important spokesperson
for the Mayan people in their struggle to survive the genocidal project of the Guatemalan military government. Allied with
the Guatemalan military, the Reagan administration had successfully protected Guatemala from human rights accusations in the
UN, until Rigoberta Menchú arrived, changing the situation. Menchú went on to receive to Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, and was
appointed UN special ambassador for the UN Decade for Indigenous Peoples, 1995-2004.
Dunbar-Ortiz is author of Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005), which documentshe first clash between the emerging international Indigenous
movement and a leftist revolution arose with the triumph of the Sandinistas (FSLN) in Nicaragua. In organizing the Contra
War, the Reagan administration, through the CIA, then the NSC, manipulated conflicts over indigenous rights between the Miskitus
of northeast Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, dividing the North American Indian movement. She can be reached at: email@example.com
[i ] United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1982/33, August 25, 1982.
[ii] For the history
and functions of the Sub-Commission, see: Tom Gardeniers, Hurst Hannum, and Janice Kruger. 1982. "The U.N. Sub-Commission
on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities: Recent Developments." Human Rights Quarterly 4 (3): 353-370;
and Peter Haver. 1982. "The United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities."
Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 21: 103-134.
[iii] United Nations
Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L566. June 29, 1972.
[v] United Nations
Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L84. June 25, 1973.
[vi] United Nations
Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L596. June 19, 1974.
[vii] United Nations
Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L707. July 17, 1975.
[viii] US administrations
from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush have boycotted the UN initiatives on Racism, including the activities of the two Decades--1974-1983,
1984-1993--ostensibly because of the inclusion of the Palestinian question on the agenda. However, although Zionism as Racism
was removed from that agenda after the 1993 Oslo accords, the United States continued to be unsupportive of anti-racist initiatives.
The George W. Bush administration registered, then walked out of the 2001 World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa.
Many US NGO representatives of color, including Native Americans, believe that the US rebuff to the issue of racism internationally
is due to the institutionalized racism inherent in the US government itself.
[ix] The author
was a member of the IITC staff organizing and directing the conference. Delegates to the conference were elected at the annual
meeting of the IITC in June 1977 at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The IITC also invited Latin American indigenous organizations
to send delegates of their choice.
[x] United Nations
Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L.684 Annex IV, p.3. July 21, 1978. United Nations Sub-Commission, 31st Session, Item16. See also:
Official report from the NGO Sub-Committee on Racism, Geneva, 1978, and Report from the International Indian Treaty Council,
New York, November, 1978. These and other documents are available from DOCIP--the Indigenous Peoples' Center for Documentation,
Research and Information, located at 14, av. de Trembley / CH - 1209 Geneva.
DOCIP was founded
at the 1977 Geneva conference with the mandate to collect and house all documents relevant to the international indigenous
[xi] The conference
documentation was formally submitted to the UN Secretary-General and the President of the UN General Assembly in November
Fact Sheet No.9 (Rev.1), The Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Programme of Activities for the International Decade of the World's
Indigenous People (1995-2004) (para. 4), General Assembly resolution 50/157 of 21 December 1995, annex. Find the Fact Sheet
August 9 was selected as the day (General Assembly resolution 49/214 of 23 December 1994 para. 8),
and 1993 as the year for indigenous peoples (resolution 45/164 of 18 December 1990), while the UN Decade for the World's Indigenous
People spanned 1995-2004 (General Assembly resolution 50/157 of 21 December 1995, annex). These dates were compromises after
a long attempt by the governments of Spain, Italy, the Vatican, and the United States, to acknowledge the 500-year anniversary
"encounter" of Europe and the Americas with the landing of Columbus on October 12, 1492 by celebrating that event in the United
Nations in 1992, calling for a day, a year (1992), and a decade (1993-2002). I was present in the General Assembly meeting
in October 1982 when Spain presented the proposal. I was shocked, then disgusted, when the Irish and the Norwegian ambassadors
teased the Spanish that their countries had been first to "discover America." After a half hour of general hilarity, suddenly
one of the African delegates stood up and walked out of the room, followed by every other African representative. A recess
was called, and the Western European and North American delegates appeared dazed and confused. I heard one say, "Why on earth
would Africans even be interested in the issue?" I was amazed at their ignorance. When the African bloc returned an hour later,
its elected spokesperson read a statement that condemned the call to celebrate the onset of "colonialism, the trans-Atlantic
slave trade, and genocide" in the halls of the United Nations. That killed the proposal, but did not faze its supporters.
The Vatican even wanted to expand the concept of "encounter" to include a phrase about the "gift" of bringing Christianity
to the heathens. During the decade that followed Spain, the Vatican, Italy, the United States, and all the Latin American
countries they could bribe brought full pressure on the African states to agree, but they never budged. Meanwhile the international
indigenous movement and local indigenous groups of the western hemisphere opposed it and insisted on those dates to honor
indigenous peoples, a battle they won in the end. To pacify Spain and the Vatican for their total defeat, August 9 was designated
as the day, and 1993 rather than 1992 was named the "UN Year for the World's Indigenous Peoples," followed by a UN Decade
(1995-2004) by the same name.
[xiii] United Nations
Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L.684 Annex IV, p. 3. July 21, 1978.
[xiv] United Nations
Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/476/Add.5, 198a: 56. The ICC did not respond to the invitation. The invited indigenous NGOs were
selected due to their status as consultative NGOS with ECOSOC. During the 1980s and 1990s, numerous other indigenous NGOS
gained consultative status.
[xv] When SWAPO took
power in Namibia and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa in the early 1990s, they developed a cooperative
relationship with the international indigenous movement, developing initiatives for the San people ("Bushmen"), who are the
indigenous people of Southern Africa.
[xvi] In 1978, following
the 1977 Geneva conference, I became a representative of the Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organization (AAPSO), a non-governmental
organization with ECOSOC consultative status based in Cairo, that was associated with NAM, in order to develop stronger links
[xvii] United Nations
Document No. E/CN.4/ Sub.2/L.772. September 1, 1981: 3. Only two representatives for indigenous issues, including myself,
were present at the Sub-Commission to lobby for the WGIP.
[xviii] Five is
the minimum number of members allowed on UN Working Groups, as it is required that an equal number of representatives from
the five UN regions be members of any UN body. These regions are: the Western states, including western Europe, North America,
Australia and New Zealand; the Eastern European states; Asia; Africa; and Latin America/Caribbean.
[xix] United Nations
Document No. E/CN.4/ Sub.2/1982/33, August 25, 1982.
[xx] The author persuaded
Menchú to attend the WGIP, after that the Sub-Commission, followed by the UN General Assembly in the Fall of 1982, and the
Commission on Human Rights in 1983.