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UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues discusses theme: The Doctrine of Discovery

arton3866During each of the four sessions of the open dialogue on the theme of the 11th session, “The Doctrine of Discovery: its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests (articles 28 and 37 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples),” statements were made by representatives of governments, indigenous peoples’ organizations, and United Nations agencies. This format, which differs from that of previous sessions, aims to facilitate more interactive dialogue by combining all stakeholders into one conversation.

In the afternoon session of Monday 7 May, the Permanent Forum convened a panel discussion focusing on national constitutions and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Panelist Robert Williams, Professor of Law and Indian American Studies at the University of Arizona, underscored the central position of the doctrine of discovery in the construction of the West. This doctrine helped impose Western power and justify colonization and it strongly contributed to negation of indigenous peoples’ rights, he stated. Indigenous peoples were even denied as indigenous, if not as human: the Doctrine of Discovery as developed by the Church was fundamentally based on dehumanization, racism, and cultural intolerance. Mr. Williams also highlighted the fact that indigenous people have always fought against the “extinguishment manner” of colonizers and are determined to continue the fight for the recognition of their rights. Stressing the need for the universal human rights language to prevail, the panellist outlined the importance of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the need to improve its implementation through lobbying goverments and recourse to judicial courts.

Tonya Gonnella Frichner, founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, reminded participants the history of the Doctrine of Discovery and its serious consequences on both people and nature. She also underlined the ongoing effects of the doctrine, particularly harmful for women and children. In this regard, she called for a clear repudiation of this doctrine as a first step to redress.

Victoria Tauli Corpuz, executive director of Tebtebba and former Co-chair of the Permanent Forum, focused her intervention on the implementation and the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery in the Philippines in order to remind us that this doctrine affected Asia and Africa as well. She also emphasized the importance of Rio+20, urging Member States to recognize and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to add a fourth pillar of sustainable development: the cultural pillar.

The final panellist, Moana Jackson, Maori Lawyer in New Zealand, reasserted the fundamental racism of the Doctrine of Discovery and outlined the current behaviour of States that continue to implement this doctrine of domination. From his perspective, any apology would be meaningless without a clear recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and the restoration of their political authority. Asserting that this doctrine undermined the right of indigenous peoples to determine their own destinies, Mr. Jackson called for effective redress for the damages this doctrine has caused.

During the discussion after the panel, Wilton Littlechild from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada noted that the definition of European values as universal was the main rationale for imposing domination; he emphasized the need for a real reconciliation of two sovereignties. Education on the true and complete history of colonization is therefore critical, he stated. He also called upon States to undertake law reviews in an inclusive way with the free and informed consent of indigenous peoples.

Antonella Cordone, Coordinator for Indigenous Issues at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) stated that IFAD’s strategic framework for 2011-2015 focuses on rural and indigenous peoples’ empowerment. Eleven projects were approved in 2011 to strengthen agricultural development and local organizations participation in the decision-making process through innovative instruments.

Arthur Manuel, on behalf of the Global Indigenous Caucus, reiterated that racism and xenophobia are embedded in the Doctrine of Discovery, and advocated its recognition as a crime against humanity. He also called for a permanent seat at the UN General Assembly for indigenous peoples and urged the Forum to carry out a study on immigration, States borders and corporate responsibility, because these issues have strong effects on the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples.

Jane Fletcher, Deputy Director of the New Zealand Office of Treaty Settlements, recognized that the Doctrine of Discovery created historic injustices as well as a negative impact on relations between indigenous people and the national government. She also explained that these relations have been based on the Waitangi Treaty since 1840. Today, New Zealand leads a continuous dialogue and process for a better redress. Thus, she hailed the example of the greater involvement of indigenous people in the management of natural resources.

Antonette Cordero, speaking on behalf of the Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus, strongly opposed to the use of the terms “past conquest” since domination behaviours are still ongoing. She also stressed the need for a gendered approach as far as implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is concerned.

Krysta Williams, from the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, demanded the right to full and equal participation of youth in the Forum, for this session and all future sessions and outlined the necessity to listen to the young generations.

The discussion continued on Tuesday 8 May; representatives of indigenous peoples’ caucuses, civil society organizations, and Member States made interventions into the discussion.

The African Indigenous Peoples Caucus highlighted the need to precisely identify the problems affecting indigenous peoples due to the doctrine of discovery and the terra nullius principle. This latter has indeed a particularly harmful legacy for nomad groups. The representative of the Caucus also argued that African indigenous peoples’ legal systems are much more appropriate than State systems to protect natural resources and environment.

Similarly, Agnes Leina of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee requested a special dialogue with the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights to study the problem of “terra nullius” – land belonging to no one – and its implications for legal discrimination against indigenous peoples in Africa. She exhorted the Forum to emphasize the importance of indigenous cultures and traditions in the context of their rights to land.

On behalf of the Asia Caucus, Jacqueline Bernadette Carino denounced the Regalian Doctrine (establishing the rights of the King of Spain over the Philippines) as at the core of the conflict between the government and the indigenous peoples of the Philippines, as well as the basis for the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination, in fulfilment of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The North American Indigenous Caucus representative asked the UN to confirm that the Doctrine of Discovery is morally and legally wrong. A study on the effects of such a doctrine on indigenous peoples’ lives today should be undertaken, he recommended. He also urged States to repeal processes and laws tied to that doctrine.

Ortenzia Hidalgo, speaking on behalf of the Latin American Indigenous Peoples Caucus, asserted that the invasion and domination of indigenous territories still continue through the practices of multinational corporations and qualified free trade as “the new god.” The new concept of “green economy” is only a way to escape responsibility and to continue the pillage of indigenous resources, she claimed. Eventually, she called for recognition of the right of self and free determination of indigenous peoples.

Catherine Davis, Maori Caucus, asserted that New Zealand’s human rights protections are very fragile and discriminatory laws still exist, maintaining indigenous peoples in an extremely vulnerable situation. She also argued that the current constitutional reform in New Zealand does not completely abide by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Pacific Indigenous Caucus made a statement through its representative Lopaka Luis Ulumaheihei, calling upon Member States to abandon colonial-era legislative holdovers in favour of streamlining their laws and policies in accordance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Job Morris, speaking on behalf of the San Caucus of Southern Africa, urged greater consultation of indigenous peoples in the decision making and implementation of development programs. He requested that the governments of Southern Africa, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the African Union recognize the essential role of the San peoples “as stewards and custodians of the earth.”

Saul Vicente Vasquez of Mexico, member of the Permanent Forum, denounced the current implementation of the doctrine of discovery by multinational corporations leading to finance, climate and food crises. To protect indigenous peoples’ rights, the UN Declaration is the best instrument we have, he said, and should be accompanied by studies on the remaining influence of the Doctrine in every country.

A fellow Permanent Forum member, Valmaine Toki of New Zealand, emphasized the importance of including indigenous perspectives in constructive agreements including constitutional review, as an essential step towards reconciliation.

Danika Littlechild of the International Indian Treaty Council reminded participants some of the most important impacts of the doctrine of discovery (land appropriation, forced relocation, privation of resources, destruction of sacred sites, etc) and recommended the development of mechanisms for conflict resolution. She also urged the Forum to change its name to the “UN Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” This proposal gained the support of many delegations.

Gonzalo Oviedo of the International Union for Conservation of Nature focused on the need for a rights-based approach. If some progress has been made, he stated, it is important to respect the principle of free, prior and informed consent in the UN collaborative programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD).

On behalf of the Comisión de la Juventud Indígena, FIMI, Angel Perez advocated for State constitutional reforms to acknowledge both individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, while implementing measures to ensure compliance with international conventions and to promote the participation of indigenous youth in political processes.

Ioannis Vrailas, on behalf of the European Union, expressed his support to the Forum and emphasized the necessity to focus on violence against indigenous women and girls as well as the need for a rights-based approach. A regional approach is also required, he added, as indigenous issues often cross borders. He also highlighted that indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

The president of the Indigenous Parliament in Venezuela, Esteban Ramos, affirmed that the Doctrine of Discovery has been used to strip indigenous peoples of their land. He then highlighted the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in the new Constitution in his country that recognizes indigenous customs, lifestyles, religion and habitat.

The Minister of Amerindian Affairs in Guyana, Pauline Sukhai, reminded that no country, no people is outside history; she focused her intervention on Guyana’s legislation providing land tenure as well as a solid platform for indigenous peoples’ participation. Despite this progress, she recognized that a lot still needs to be done.

The representative of Chile, Juan Pablo Crisostono, articulated the necessity of acknowledging “first peoples” as part of the national identity. Chile encourages first peoples’ participation, land restoration and indigenous language safeguarding, he said. He hailed the example of scholarships for indigenous students and intercultural programs implemented by the Ministry of Education. He also mentioned the creation of an Office for Indigenous Affairs dealing with cross-cutting issues.

The representative of Brazil said that cultural diversity should be recognized as a value. He also shared the Brazilian efforts to respect the autonomy of dozens of isolated indigenous communities in this country. Assurance of full ownership of their lands is an efficient policy of redress, he stated.

Serena Heckler, representing the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stressed her organization’s support of indigenous language valorization as well as its work to safeguard indigenous cultural heritage through the efforts of its Local and Indigenous Knowledge System (LINKS) in engaging with education systems in, among others, Nicaragua and the Solomon Islands.

David Lawson, director of the UNFPA office in the Republic of Congo, underscored the danger of extinction of indigenous peoples in Congo, who suffer from high mortality, HIV and sexual violence. UNFPA has worked in partnership with the Brazzaville government and NGOs to develop new policies and implement new programs on the ground. For instance, UNFPA helped ensure the participation of indigenous communities in the upcoming legislative election in Congo.

In his closing remarks, the aforementioned Robert Williams of University of Arizona provided a summary of the interventions that defined the Doctrine of Discovery and the terra nullius principle as racist and created to justify expropriation and seize sovereignty. The panelist also added that a colonial mindset is still reflected today in many countries, such as Canada, which prevents real redress. He eventually called for creation of a new international mechanism to investigate on land claims.

Panelist Moana Jackson, Maori Lawyer in New Zealand, expressed his disappointment by the silence of many States during this forum: their refusal to discuss the Doctrine of Discovery unfortunately implies that they still validate this doctrine. He also reiterated the statement of the Maori Caucus pointing out the bad faith of the New Zealand Government.

Finally, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation summed up the discussion by stating that the Doctrine of Discovery and other facets of “international law” signify, in reality, six centuries of crimes against humanity and violation of the rights of indigenous peoples around the world.


This article is also vailable in Spanish and in French.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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