I have asked before, and I’ll ask again: what good is the United Nations? What can the United States do with the other 191 nation states in the United Nations that it cannot do better by dealing with other states individually? Since the U.S. both hosts the U.N. within its borders and pays almost a quarter of its budget, it is a fair question to ask.
And then the U.N. produces things like the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and I realize that it’s past time for the U.S. to leave the United Nations. In late 2007, the United Nations adopted the declaration with a vote of 143 to 4. The four nations that voted against the declaration were Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. In 2009 Australia endorsed the declaration, and New Zealand and Canada reversed their votes in March and April of 2010, respectively. So only the United States is on record as opposing the declaration. What could possibly be wrong with it? I see three main problems with the declaration. The first comes in Article 19.
States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.
Before a law is signed and enforced, Congress needs to get the “free, prior and informed consent” from all indigenous peoples in our nation, if the law in question may affect them. And in this day and age, what law doesn’t affect most Americans? And before a governmental department can adopt or implement any administrative change that may affect indigenous people, that department needs to get the “free, prior and informed consent” from them. So, when was the last time that the government got “free, prior and informed consent” from its citizens before enacting a law? If indigenous people get consent while others do not, this declaration has just produced two classes of people before the law. And that’s a bad thing.
But as bad as dividing the nation is, I have a bigger problem with Article 26.
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.
3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.
Want to expand your Manhattan business? You’ll need to negotiate that with the Lenape people first, since they are the indigenous people who “traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired” that island. Sure, the Dutch purchased the island from the Lenape in 1626, the British took it from them in 1664, and the Americans rebelled against the British in 1776, but this declaration doesn’t consider that history. According to Article 26, the Lenape have “the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership,” and they traditionally owned Manhattan. Such language is what makes lawyers rich.
Now multiply that legalistic nightmare by every state, county, and city in the United States, and you begin to see just how incredibly messy this declaration could be for Americans, since every state in the Union was at one time “traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired” by one tribe or another. If a family of indigenous people does some fishing in the Mississippi, or if their ancestors ever did likewise, that family now has the legal right to that resource since they or their ancestors once used it.
Put simply, the declaration would result in a massive wealth transfer from people who purchased or inherited the land to people who haven’t lived on the land for generations, minus the fees paid to the lawyers. What’s not to like about this?
Which brings me to my last point. I was born in the United States over forty years ago. My niece, who is exactly thirty years younger than me, is half Navajo. Guess which one of us is going to have the legal status of “indigenous?”
Yep. We really need the United Nations to bring us the legalistic nightmare that is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Now why is it we need to be part of the U.N.?