Summary: Working Group on the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination
How civil society can promote the right to self-determination
||18 July 2002, 11:30 - 13:00
Moderator(s):|| • Mr. Joshua Cooper, Hawaii Institute for Human Rights (HIHR)|
Presenters/ Participants:|| • Mr. Willy Littlechild, Indian Law Resource Centre and Member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues|
• Mr. John Scott, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)
• Mr. Michael Van Walt, International Peace Council for States, Peoples and Minorities (KREDDHA)
||Stephen J. Doggett (ICVolunteers)
||Civil society, aboriginal, indigenous, self-determination, Littlechild, Scott,
The final topic to be considered by this working group focused on the role that civil society can play in the future of indigenous peoples and self-determination claims. History and legal mechanisms had been examined in previous sessions, and this summary session concluded with a call to individuals and civil society organizations to take action on these issues.
Presenting his second speech of the week, Mr. Michael van Walt of the International Peace Council for States, Peoples and Minorities said that the present political climate, post-September 11th, left civil society with a very clear task to "put our feet back on the ground". He believes that many governments are using the events as an excuse to condemn as terrorist any self-determination movement that uses force. He said that it is currently seen as more acceptable to pursue harsher immigration laws in the name of territorial integrity and security, and to implement policies that only a year ago would have caused outrage. Civil society has a responsibility to speak out against this kind of government over-reaction and also to reject popular press coveragethat categorizes or stigmatizes self-determination movements, said Mr. van Walt.
He called upon civil society to take the "moral high ground" and demonstrate that it is in everybody's long-term interest to consistently defend the principles of human rights because any other way will create and perpetuate conflict.
Mr. John Scott, United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, first outlined his Aboriginal background and then talked about human rights abuses in Australia before building upon Mr. van Walt's speech. He said that for a state to uphold human rights law, the state needed a strong democracy -which is possible only where there is a strong and active civil society.
Wearing traditional tribal headdress, Mr. Willy Littlechild, or Walking Wolf, member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and Honourary Chief of a tribe of the Cree Peoples of Canada, said that it hurt him that after 25 years of addressing these topics, so many states still failed to recognize indigenous peoples. According to the elders of his tribe, he said, to refer to the Cree as a population, as some documents do, is to regard them as no more than "herds of elk".
Reiterating a point that had been brought up a number of times during the week, Mr. Littlechild spoke out against the clause that accompanies the use of the term "peoples" in ILO169. The clause dismisses the use of "peoples" as not being applicable in legal matters, effectively rendering it ineffective. Mr. Littlechild said that it was only with full recognition that indigenous peoples could fully contribute in a world forum.
Moving briefly away from the role of civil societies, a number of points were made about how existing human rights law was in many ways alien to indigenous peoples. Complementing Mr. Swepston's (ILO) comments of the previous day, that indigenous peoples have a "spiritual relationship" with the land that is hard to legally define, Mr. Littlechild said that the Cree believed in inherent human rights and that their own laws and customs more fully expressed the universality of human rights than international law. International law states that human rights must be delegated, but to the Cree human rights are a fundamental basis of what it is to be a Cree and to be human.
Mr. Scott agreed that it was the inability of international human rights law to incorporate the beliefs of indigenous peoples that crucially weakened it.
A number of points of interest were raised in the lengthy discussion session. There were calls to set up a website to aid all peoples claiming self-determination to communicate and more importantly to correct misinformation. The idea of a website was widely supported and would become one of the recommendations of the summary session afterwards.
A question was asked about the legitimacy of using the single term "self-determination" to express so many possible desires. Peoples expressing their right to self-determination might merely be asking for their own regional government or they might be seeking full secession from a state. In response, Mr. Littlechild expressed agreement and noted that "self-determination" could be translated into four different words in the Cree language. However, Mr. Littlechild said, self-determination is the right of all peoples to choose for themselves, whatever that may mean for them.
This session made clear that there is a leading role to be played by civil society in the self-determination claims process. some participants felt that at present, civil society does not do enough and that it is because of this that governments commit human rights abuses and are selective in their recognition of indigenous peoples.
Panelists concluded that civil society must contribute to the building of strong democracies if a consistent and just human rights policy is to be adopted by governments. The double standards that still infuse international law and deny indigenous peoples the recognition that they are entitled to will stop only when civil society starts to lead by example.
Presenters' Documents Available
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