The Obama Administration is weighing whether to sign off on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which could pose a problem to anyone who’s purchased property in the United States in the past several centuries.
The declaration was overwhelmingly adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007 largely by rich, European countries whose indigenous peoples triumphed over the Romans and by poor, non-European countries whose indigenous populations either never were, have long since vanished or are now relatively small and powerless.
For a wealthy country like the United States with large numbers of politically connected Indian tribes, formal adhesion to the declaration might be just a little more consequential.
The declaration starts off by affirming the rights of indigenous peoples on a number of worthy fronts, such as self-determination, freedom, peace, human rights and native languages. But then there’s Article 26, which states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”
You don’t have to be Christopher Columbus to see how this might raise a few red flags. About 500 years ago — circa 1491 — the United States was wholly occupied by indigenous peoples, also known as American Indians. If they now have a legal claim to the lands they have “traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired,” this could place a significant wrinkle in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s redevelopment plans for Lower Manhattan.
U.S. adhesion to the Declaration should be uplifting for the fees of international “public interest” lawyers, who’ve been increasingly encouraged by proliferating references federal judges have made to transnational “norms,” “customs,” and standards in their decisions.
Perhaps recognizing this, the Bush Administration voted against the resolution when it was introduced in 2007, as did three other nations: Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In March, however, Canada broke ranks and announced that it would support the declaration, albeit with what Ottawa termed a “qualified endorsement.” Australia confirmed its endorsement April 3, while New Zealand announced its support April 20.
Not wanting to be seen as an international killjoy, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice jumped on the bandwagon in an April 20 address to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, saying she was “pleased to announce that the United States has decided to review our position” on the declaration.
“There is no American history without Native American history. There can be no just and decent future for our nation that does not directly tackle the legacy of bitter discrimination and sorrow that the first Americans still live with,” said Rice in her remarks. “Let there be no doubt of our commitment. We stand ready to be judged by the results.”
The result, of course, could be legal chaos as tribes attempt to renegotiate treaties, exercise control over development, and litigate ancestral lands and trusts claims, potentially far beyond their current reservations. The declaration is non-binding, meaning that it technically has no legal force, but it’s already being viewed by advocates as a potent legal weapon.