“And Canada itself, based on very specific reports by international organizations, is one of the largest violators of human rights against the indigenous people and Muslims and other communities.” - Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi, December 1, 2008
When the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman flung this accusation at Canada, most Canadians probably shrugged it off as a desperate response to our support for a UN resolution condemning human rights violations in Iran.
When ten days later at a UN Conference on Climate Change the Canadian government found itself having to answer more questions on the issue of indigenous rights than on emissions targets, most Canadians probably wondered how these issues were even related.
When a delegation arrives in Washington on January 8 to talk to President-elect Obama about oil and human rights, most Canadians will probably be surprised to hear that the delegation is a group of First Nations Chiefs from across Canada rather than activists concerned about Iraq.
What most Canadians probably don’t realize is that indigenous rights are becoming a hot topic of conversation at international events these days. There are many reasons for this. The interconnections between issues are becoming more apparent. Indigenous groups are becoming savvier in the ways of international affairs. Decades of effort on the part of indigenous peoples around the world are finally coming to fruition. But the issue of indigenous rights came to a head when the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by most UN member states in September 2007.
Almost as significant as the declaration itself were the four countries that voted against the declaration: the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Four settler states with large indigenous populations. It’s not that these countries disagreed with the entire document, but that it touched on a few key issues that are still the subject of intense discussion and negotiation at the local level. Self-determination. The need for free, prior and informed consent before taking certain actions. The proper means of reconciling the past. The fact that indigenous lands hold a great deal of natural resources throws a wrench into things as well.
Now international law is a funny thing, and UN declarations are even funnier. They are non-binding, unenforceable, and only morally persuasive at best. But moral persuasion can go a long way. Indigenous groups understand this and are using it to their advantage. Most Canadians should take note.