What’s Wrong with Germany’s Signature on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
by Jessica Osenbrugge
Since I journeyed over the Atlantic seas from my native land, America, to the country of Germany, I have discovered the Old World; an old world where what is new is this: this land is now one of many European countries tied into a larger union of nation-states. These nation-states like the United States of America and the provinces and territories of Canada sign big, important documents at big, important buildings around the globe and make big, important decisions about peoples they may continue to spectacle through a nickelodeon.
While this union of European states has its legal, economic, and political underpinnings in a series of Treaty agreements following World War II, and continues some sort of semblance of dignified unity straight into the 21st Century, at a base level one could not nor should mistake a German of French identity nor of British or Greek or Hungarian. Each country, if not solely by right, retains and claims a unique heritage and pride to language, culture, ancestry, and land.
Certainly, no one in Germany would appreciate nor think it wise if a Hungarian or a Briton re-discovers and claims as his own, the much-regarded German forests and rivers. No one would think it cute if he then proceeds to attempt a codification of language and culture that resembles nothing of what is distinctly German. Nor, claim a parcel of land that is meant for German children and their children, disparage and degrade it, and churn the rotten spoils over. No one would find it just to forsake the life and livelihood of a peoples for the economic benefit of a few who may have never once stepped foot inside the country of Germany.
Thus, it seemed quite hopeful and remarkable that the member states of the European Union (EU), including Germany, signed the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007. One would think that the EU would have no other perspective and tradition in its bootstraps that could belie the equal rights of indigenous peoples around the globe. The indigenous have a right to retain and claim as members states of the EU do, and as the Preamble of the Declaration declares, Recognizing the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.
It becomes, then, quite a confounding conundrum, a baffling riddle of the phoenix, as to what would lead Germany and other European nation-states to disrespect North American indigenous rights since signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This, in light of the glorious ratification of the UN declaration 2 1/2 years ago. Is it, perhaps, that the quill dried up before the German and European media could halt the printing presses from doing an immaculate, triumphant PR job – firing up the good kindling to make smoke signals for North American native peoples? Wafting messages that European nations and peoples are indeed a friend.
Why is it then that when I came to Germany in January of 2008, and began discussing and educating about rights conflicts that affect indigenous peoples and children of the United States, Canada, and Mexico – conflicts that occur with each inhale we take and exhale we push, today, right now, this second – it was evinced that “the topic” was either too controversial, or, yawn, too uninteresting? Double-yawn.
We shall all be aware that the global human rights regime is yet another circuit pervaded by both expected, benign internal bickering and politicking. After all, one can become quite clenched and a real dullard meeting with the same circles of advocates every day. These folks may be located in places where war and the lack of clean water is something they have only know from position papers and draft resolutions. Then, there is the more nefarious kind – serious conflict-of-interests when crossing politics with human rights agendas. Meddling from double-down, high-rolling politicians, whose power platforms are derived in elegant-sounding careers and within elaborate networks of very big, important people, shapes the what and the who human rights groups may actually be interested in helping. Couple this with the oh-so-other big, important objective of the promotion of the westernized brand of capitalistic democracy, you may just lose your poker face and all your cards.
Then, there is the natural criticism of how human rights groups do what they do. Many organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam are routinely accused of selection bias, poor research methodologies, and for being pro- or anti- whatever movement or country or peoples strikes the fancy of democratized governments at that precise moment (the focus of the types of human rights to be examined and theorized on, I have found, are a fashionable commodity). These accusations are what they are, and should be left to each individual or organization to assess the criticism, to weigh the level of assistance they could receive despite the risks, and then discern whether or not to approach such human rights agency.
Regardless, the general public the world over generally believes one thing. A human rights organization, global or regional, is there for this defined reason: to serve all human beings or a collection of human beings who are experiencing a deprivation of their very right to exist on planet Earth, galaxy Milky Way.
I believed as such in Germany. I also believed that there would be far more openness and willingness to hear about what precisely are the conflicts for North American indigenous peoples. Today.
Although I appear by the suit the world has donned me as a cynic, I come from an ancient blood-line of ardent, yet down-and-out optimists. I thought it prudent to approach the German human rights regime and ask a basic question: now that you have signed it, what does the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples mean to you and your country?
I concede that perhaps I wouldn’t have been so motivated to make such an inquiry if I hadn’t had the knowledge and understanding that German and European banks finance and private business firms partake in economic industrial development projects nearby, around, in the neighborhood of, or squarely on and underneath and above indigenous ancestral, Treaty, spiritual, and ceded lands, and upon indigenous peoples in North America. In fact, almost all member states of the European Union are thespians in this theatrical production. With identical method acting from the United States and Canada, they play a strong part on the world’s stage, “The 21st Century Uprising: Collaboration for Conflict against North American Indigenous”.
I had a good, logical, and basic question.
After all, what did Article 32, Clause 2 of the declaration reaffirm? States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.
I had an even more logical quest to erect a meaningful discourse in Germany and throughout Europe about what could be done to actually respect and promote the inherent rights of North American indigenous peoples as provided for in the Declaration. Perhaps, they didn’t know that their economic project interests and activities in North America were actually betraying and violating the 46 Articles. An affiliate of a multi-national German firm, with a larger economy than most nation-states in the world, confessed it. They expressed that the largest industrial project in the world, in which this company reaps big, important money from, does in fact cause substantial damages to the land and the indigenous way of life. Perhaps, Germany and the European Union needed to revisit Article 7, Clause 1, Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.
Imagine my surprise then, that after all this education, advocacy, and discussion-blistering that went on in Germany, that I found myself smack in the city center of Berlin face-to-face with an individual who was a former Human Rights Secretary General and currently is an EU Parliament member. I was inside the illustrious golden-gate palace on the rights of mankind with an organization that possesses consultative status to the UN, and was told by this individual that I, “…would not get very far talking about anything indigenous here.”
Say what? Come again?
I would not get very far talking in Europe about North American indigenous peoples!? Nor would I get too far discussing the rights violations they face day in and day out that. Conflicts that can at times be whittled down to a question of life or death.
Wait. Didn’t Germany agree to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and aren’t you an agency that helps, well, people?
Shall we then suppose that although Germany signed the UN Declaration of Human Rights and The Geneva Conventions, that one would not get too far discussing human rights or genocide in the country?
This individual, I believe, was in some part being soulfully candid while also lamenting that I will, indeed, root out and face a sinister truth in my endeavors. Simultaneously, I understood that North American indigenous conflicts were not a trendy accessory to this organization. Nor is it fashionable for any politician in the EU who wishes to sustain their power and political capital to even mention the dirty word…indigenous. Shhhhhhhh. This individual, like many politicians in America and Canada, may wield a mighty wand upon a petal of illusions – the abidance to the universal and global corpus of human rights. Yet, they must entertain the notion that there is a rigorous set of cogs within the internal workings of the international economic and political diplomacy machine. To ensure its austerity they may set the sails and temper the water with approved human rights agendas.
Following this mid-summer day’s epiphany in 2009, the organization still requested of me to perform a small checklist of things to do. This checklist included writing letters to German businesses and banking firms, posting my lecture notes on their webpage and to network with a troop of human rights advocates including those in the United States. They believed that North American indigenous rights matters really belonged in the jurisdiction of America, even though they were all surprised to learn Germany’s involvement in the perpetration of indigenous rights conflicts from Canada to the wild, western American frontiers. It was noted that the checklist work was supposed to come first before they would engage in any [minor] action to support North American indigenous peoples.
They had not felt convinced enough to begin work on their own. Sure, they could have called Germany’s top banks and multinational corporations and asked, ‘hey, we got some American Frau in here talking about Indians - what are you guys doing over there in North America?’ They should have called the numerous community-based, grass-roots indigenous organizations in Canada and the United States and asked, ‘how can we help and support you? How can we begin giving real meaning in our commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?’
The human rights organization later alleged that it asked around with its members and constituents to see if anyone would be behooved to formulate a “working group” with me on North American indigenous conflicts. It was alleged that it was bidded once. Twice. Thrice. No Takers. Yawn.
It struck me after a period of weeks that the organization had written up an appeasement. A Treaty, if you will. If I complied and satisfied all of their demands, perhaps indigenous rights conflicts would receive a little food and fry bread in Germany. Like the entire embodiment of Treaty agreements with North American indigenous peoples, a lack of adherence created bad consequences for only one side. Naturally. The purveyors of the accord, of course, do not take the penalty. If I didn’t perform the requested duties, then the organization shall not claim any responsibility for doing nothing at all. They would be absolved of any accountability towards rolling out a beginner’s indigenous-rights-for-dummies model; to actually behave in accordance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Any escalation of injustice for indigenous peoples was not blood on their own hands.
This organization has kept their hands polished and their pedicures up-to-date, despite an understanding of the gritty transgressions that German businesses continue to conduct on indigenous lands. Political careers are still intact. And the organization taps its goody two-shoes for its congenial behavior.
If there are obstacles in the discussion of indigenous rights in German human rights circles, what then of German educational and cultural institutions? Has anything changed since Germany signed the declaration, in the approach and/or strategies of education about, or even by, indigenous peoples?
When I posed this question, along with a few others, to the Federal Foreign Office of Germany’s Human Rights Council in the spring of 2009, they were very eager to explain to me how the country of Germany and other EU member nations sponsored the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Their unique stance respects indigenous rights and promotes, by economic development projects, fairer standards of living and livelihoods. Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) environmental guidelines are followed, at least in spirit, in their interaction with the Earth Mother.
What was deeply embedded in this series of communications is that this grand undertaking is directed towards indigenous peoples who reside in developing nations. Germany underlines “…that there is no specific German approach towards North American indigenous peoples.”
It would be remiss to not point out that the declaration did not differentiate between native peoples in developing nations and native peoples in developed nations. In fact, no specificity was given. Both groups need equal recognition of rights because both groups may reside in countries where Articles 27 and 28 have not been satisfactorily observed and performed.
States shall establish and implement, in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process, giving due recognition to indigenous peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognize and adjudicate the rights of indigenous peoples pertaining to their lands, territories and resources, including those which were traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used. Indigenous peoples shall have the right to participate in this process.
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.
2. Unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.
Perhaps, Germany is not aware that the American and Canadian legal redress processes are, at times, hardly laudable. Or that Treaty and land negotiation processes have been found incompetent by numerous civil societies and rights groups, and even recently by the Organization of American States (OAS). Or that monetary compensation for the continued perpetration of injustice and rights violations against North American indigenous is not the only solution in making friends. That possibly, possibly, possibly it will take action, a physical manifestation of doing, to bring to life the magic ink on a recycled piece of UN paper.
I thought perhaps the German Human Rights Council may have been absent-minded in informing me on how the university system and cultural institutions have adjusted its programs. Maybe they didn’t know themselves. I went straight to the source, then, to uncover my answers. I contacted several universities in Germany to ask this question, “now that you have signed it, what does the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples mean to you and your country? Have you changed anything in the educational programs? Are you aware that Article 15 states, Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.”
Perhaps, it is my all-American education from a very well-known and regarded public college on the Upper East Side of New York City that propels me into a misunderstanding of what higher education is all about in Germany. Clearly, in New York City, one will find every social and political viewpoint and activism in the world, and public universities seem quite eager to let them in. Everyone has a voice. Everyone has an opinion. And the cloak of democracy, at least, is maintained. The aura of open-thought, diversity, and progressiveness - which may betray every fiber in your very being - isn’t this what young adults expect when they go to college?
It is incredibly unfortunate that these enlightened college years do not befall every human being between the Atlantic and the Pacific, Canada and Mexico, and east and west of the Mississippi. For those who have been graced by higher education institutions, it seems that all this open-thought may not have permeated and saturated other areas of the American consciousness. Those college years, man, they were a blast anyway though.
I am quite confident that mind-jerking and a massage of the brain muscles actually does occur in the German university system. Surely, surely, surely too German student life resembles precisely American student life with the all-night deluges in binge-drinking and keggers – though, I am sure the kegs look far more sophisticated, if not bigger, in Germany. But in between the beers, I am aware that German students receive a hell of a good education. Those who chose so, receive their Euro’s worth of Native American literature and education courses. Yes, they facilitate discussions on the writing power of Sherman Alexie just like America students do. Try to understand reservation life just like American students do. Plaster through their political science, economics, and social injustice, and globalization courses. Just like American students do.
Several German and EU universities also have 3– and 4- day extracurricular conferences that are trying to paint a picture on where the co-existence of indigenous peoples and Caucasian peoples is precisely going now that the world is being knocked off its rocker. How do we analyze this co-habitation on a planet that is still reeling from the coinages of new terms such as: rapid globalization, post-modernism, post-industrial societies, advanced-market economies, service-based economies, climate change, post- September 11th, and information revolution?
What sense does any human being – indigenous and non-indigenous alike – make of this when the feel on the ground, in every-day life, is stuffed to the brim with joblessness, hunger, homelessness, and injustices in their own backyards? With walls and surveillance, mineral and natural resource mining, warped legislation and laws written by and for those who raise a powerful pillar made of capital, right on the backs of humanity.
In these academic conferences, there’s a hankering to linger the examination on the co-existence of native peoples with the rest of the world via the lens of college-approved arts and humanities. While these things are incredible and worthy contributions in their own right, everyone susurrates to the same tip-toe dance that human rights organizations often do, or at least the ones that may actually attempt to support indigenous peoples. You never just come out and say what the conflicts are about. You never specify who the players really are, how it began, and what variables continue to inflame it. It seems to be impish and impolite gossip to mention ill-conceived North American public policies of today and yesteryear, transnational economic industrial projects, and judicial processes that are trained to negate or flat-out reject the construction of matters that concern indigenous peoples.
In my speaking engagements, I didn’t tip-toe. I stated it clearly - from bad United States public policies, opportunistic multi-national economic ventures that take advantage of policy, and the rights violations of indigenous men, women, and children. I rabbled on about how the legal processes exacerbate the conflicts and have minimized the indigenous right to self-determination and sovereignty. This right is indeed declared, at least on paper, by the United States and Canadian governments. Each indigenous nation’s constitutions, which they have a right to create, upholds identity and sovereignty. No kidding! How uncanny, then, that Article 3 of the Declaration applauds the right of nationality and the determination of self, Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
In my pursuits, I regaled German students with not only the qualms of scientific-less federal legislation policies, but how German and European firms have quantifiable economic-steads in industrial projects on North American indigenous lands, be it the equivalent of hundred bucks to a 100 million greenbacks. It seems that these presentations went well and students had many good questions. However, after being allowed in to some German universities to raise awareness on contemporary rights conflicts, I felt a sour, cold bluster. After receiving an invite, I would be disinvited or unreciprocated in communications. Could be that everyone just got busy. Could be.
The idea, though, of examining the rights conflicts from a domestic and international economic level or a policy level, or, simply from a ground-level, this may have been cast to the realm of political activism. It is controversial, touchy, risqué. Shouldn’t be done. It may just be a career-killer for a soon-to-be tenured professor who invites an educator or a supporter who actually criticizes and announces they absolutely dislike North American public policy against indigenous peoples. Or, it’ll expose the unwitting student of actually learning another perspective they have never conceived of. At the expense, of course, of killing a career in international politics and business. While clicking their pearly student heels, the mantra may be: There’s no place like North America. Must get along. It makes for good political and economic relations. It is vital to deepening my pockets.
Activism – be it political, social, or environmental - may have a bad rap in the German university system since the late 60’s. This too may be growing in the United States system, though, I still clutch to the hope that the cacophony of the left-leaning and right-leaning voices are welcomed. In Germany, however, if the discussion of anything “indigenous” is to be had in the hallmark of higher learning, it could be that it is viewed from only the orientation of activism. It couldn’t be that it just may come from an indigenous truth about the very world we all live in together. It couldn’t be that colonialism shouldn’t be talked about in only a historical context. It couldn’t be that the violation of rights affects indigenous children today. And will do so tomorrow. “Indigenous” somehow is unable to be disassociated from “activism” unless you apply the apt poultice of scholarly arts and humanities point-of-views to assuage the discussion. To tip-toe. To portend the real significant substance. To never find out the truth. Even if it is different than your own. How truly American this is!
Leave it to the theorists, they say. Leave it to those “elites” who by very grade of their educational status should know how to discuss and treat North American indigenous peoples. Leave it to those educators who may have spent 3 months out of their lives in an indigenous community in the States or Canada, and perhaps studied an anthropological motif and made it a celebrated thesis. Their academic analysis on other peoples, while it helps to fuel cozy trans-Atlantic diplomacy, weighs more in gold than the voice of indigenous leadership. Today.
Otherwise, the opinion may remain as one regarded cultural educator in the south of Germany told me -while it is a challenge to stop the process of evolution, and cultures and peoples are influenced by one another, “… [indigenous cultures] are not going to disappear, but they are adapting to new situations. In this context, some [indigenous] cultural traits are indeed lost, but replaced by new ones.”
Is this really acceptable? Is this really what the body of diverse indigenous leaders are calling for in their community actions and calls for critical support from the indigenous and non-indigenous? Are they indeed suggesting that it’s a wonderful blessing to lose cultural traits and to replace the old with the new? Or simply resign themselves to this degenerative condition?
Or, could it be that indigenous peoples are asking to “just say no” to bad domestic and international Euro-American policy and big business who dare not to actually revere the earth in the same vein as their own mother? To just say that this is not only a matter of the subliminal loss of cultural traits here and there, but rather to object and to not tolerate the genocide of indigenous peoples’ knowledges?
I have been told by some European professors that they wouldn’t dare to invite contributors who appear on this very blog site, Censored News. I have been told that there is little public awareness that the country of Germany and EU member states signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Some didn’t know it themselves. How, then, can we expect any change in the way we respect the world and the people in it when the youth, which everyone unequivocally concurs are the inheritors of this hunk of maternal rock, are following a leadership that only finds change in the blotting of the ink on paper? Of writing a grandiose webbing of spirited words in big, important declarations, and then carve no spirited motivation towards actually performing those words?
Perhaps then, I’ll gander an educated guess on how indigenous and non-indigenous children of today will view each other tomorrow, and what kind of spoiled apple they will inherit.
Is the southern United States and Mexico border wall and ensuing conflict touchy? I suppose for some in Germany who already know the atrocity of wars and walls, it could be. Is the mineral mining in the western half of the United States that perpetrates a whole host of continuous indigenous conflicts of rights, risqué? Sure. For German and European big business monsters that stand a galatical chance to deepen their pockets with wealth. Is oil drilling in the Boreal Forest of Canada and off-shore in Alaska too controversial? It could be so. Does shutting the door on real examination, analysis, research, and discourse on indigenous rights instruments thereby remove German and EU nation responsibility from them? Or is it of the view that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is not even, as people say about UN declarations, worth the paper it is written on?
The German public like the American or Canadian public is none the wiser either. How could they be when their attention spans are warped by 30-second spins around the global television box about Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan? Then, a barrage of incentives to seduce you to consume. This is the only real job the westernized, industrialized, and democratized public has. While members of the German public will tell me to my face that they have nothing to do with those Indians in North America (yet 40,000+ Germans will dress up like one for the nostalgic wonderment and romance of it all), it has not tugged their consciousness to think again about the sources of materials that just may be lodged in their chest of drawers -chock full of lifestyle and technology. That reality says that these did not only come from a far away, exotic place that have indigenous peoples in them such as Africa and South America (yes, this has been seen on TV), but also from the indigenous under the Star-Spangled Banner and the Red Maple Leaf.
If every Article and Clause of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was actually followed, with every ‘t’ crossed and ‘i’ dotted, every European, American, and Canadian would live in a world they have never experienced before. This may feel, in fact, too touchy, risqué, and controversial. Scary. However, if the dominance of one view was actually supplanted with the notion of equality for all of mankind, our children would inherit an age-old passing of a universal truth we all hold dear. A promise from the old sages to the sprightly youth not yet conceived of - a lighter and balanced world exists and it has finally been bestowed to you. If this shall happen, then we would know that a philosophy, as outlined in Article 1, has metamorphosed from a state of abstractionism to tangible reality, Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.
Like in America and Canada there are human beings sprinkled throughout Germany and the European Union who are not afraid of realizing this reality. They are committed to shaping the future judgment of these times by the posterity of their children. They are open to hearing the voice of indigenous peoples and supporting indigenous leadership. They are willing to commit to spirited action with or without the big, important declarations. They will not stand-by in complicity and tolerate governments and businesses who fancy antiquated parlor-tricks in ignorance, greed, and vanity over the killing of the soul in another.
Please Germany and the EU, do not feign leadership nor follow in the foot-steps of the three westernized, democratized nations that have a government-to-government relationship with indigenous nations, and who still have not committed to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The thousands of indigenous peoples and nations in North American, if not solely by right, retain and claim a unique heritage and pride to language, culture, ancestry, and land, as you exercise. And they are asking of you, “now that you have signed it, what does the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples mean to you and your country? How will you respect North American indigenous rights?”
Do not make nothing of just another signature.
You can begin by actually doing a big, important action, Recognizing the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.
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Censored News is published by censored journalist Brenda Norrell. A journalist for 27 years, Brenda lived on the Navajo Nation for 18 years, writing for Navajo Times, AP, USA Today, Lakota Times and other American Indian publications. After being censored and then terminated by Indian Country Today in 2006, she began the Censored Blog to document the most censored issues. She currently serves as human rights editor for the U.N. OBSERVER & International Report at the Hague and contributor to Sri Lanka Guardian, Narco News and CounterPunch. She was cohost of the 5-month Longest Walk Talk Radio across America, with Earthcycles Producer Govinda Dalton in 2008: www.earthcycles.net/
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