Anniversary of the UN Declaration: More must be done

Op-Ed written by Robert T. Coulter
Published September 17, 2008


The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the most significant development in international human rights law in decades. International human rights law now recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples as peoples, including rights of self-determination, property and culture. It is now accepted that indigenous peoples and our governments are a permanent part of the world community and the countries where we live.

For some 300 years, European colonists and, later, the United States treated Indian nations as if Native peoples would eventually disappear – as if we were a temporary problem. The laws and political morality of this country have been based upon and in part justified by this belief in the eventual demise and disappearance of Native nations and our citizens.

Legal rules were created and applied to Native peoples that were, and still are, racially discriminatory and grossly unjust. Arbitrary rules and serious mis treatment are made to seem plausible or even appropriate if they are merely temporary. There was, and sometimes still is, an unspoken political assumption that the victims would soon be gone and require no redress.

But for generations, Indian natio ns have been growing more numerous and more strong as self-governing societies. We are not temporary by any means. And now we are finally seeing a turning of the tide as the world community has recognized Indian and other indigenous nations as permanent governments.

Although we are seeing a turning of the tide, we must still fight for the recognition that Indian nations are permanent governments, not temporary, vanishing entities. Unfortunately, the United States, along with Canada, New Zealand and Australia, failed to make this acknowledgment by voting against the adoption of the declaration.

To see the promise of the declaration become a reality, we must continue to fight for laws, policies and relationships that take into account the permanent presence of Indian nations in this country, and throughout the world. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets basic rules by which we could live together over the long term.

In our work for Indian rights, we can and should use the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a powerful affirmation of our rights. Only through continued use will its provisions become our reality.

Perhaps most important, we must work harder than ever to pressure and persuade the United States and Canada to recognize and respect these rights. This can still be done. Winning U.S. support for these human rights will make them far more useful in this country.

The best way to continue the work to gain U.S. support is to demand that the United States join in adopting a strong Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Organization of American States.

The OAS is now negotiating a powerful American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples much like the U.N. declaration. We must increase the pressure on the United States and other countries to respect our human rights and adopt a strong OAS American declaration. We must publicly expose and protest the continuing violation of our rights in the United States, and we must demand serious action in the OAS to finalize a strong and effective declaration supported by all countries in the Americas.

We need to make this pressure felt at upcoming OAS meetings in Washington, D.C., about the declaration, and plans are being made now to do this. The next meeting will be Nov. 3 – 7, and there will be further meetings Jan. 26 – 30 and March 23 – 27, 2009. Tribal leaders should make plans to attend these meetings in Washington and get involved.

Carrying on the fight in this way is the best way to celebrate and honor the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples one year ago.

For further information about the meetings on the OAS American Declaration and how you can participate, contact us at (202) 547-2800 or (406) 449-2006 or visit

Robert Tim Coulter, founder and executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont., and Washington, D.C., has practiced Indian and human rights law for more than 30 years.