What Brought Evo Morales to Power? The Role of the International Indigenous Movement and What the Left Is Missing

What has been left out of reports and analysis in both the mainstream press and among anti-imperialists and leftists about the triumph of Evo Morales’ election as President of Bolivia is the role played by the three-decade international indigenous movement that preceded it.  Few are even aware of that powerful and remarkable historic movement, which springs from generations of grassroots organizing.  If the left, particularly the Latin American left, misses this point, it’s a shame, as mistrust of and racism against the indigenous nations has been the Achilles heel of previous revolutionary movements in Latin America (as well as North America).

Indeed, some indigenous activists and organizations in the Andean region are wary of Evo Morales because of his left politics and alliances, for the very reason that the Latin American left has so consistently either ignored indigenous issues and aspirations, or used the indigenous and tossed them aside (recall that the liberation armies of Bolivar and San Martin and the independence movement and 20th century revolution in Mexico, as well as the recent Guatemalan revolution, were made up of indigenous foot soldiers).

The burden is on the American (and I mean Western Hemisphere) left to catch up with what has been going on with the indigenous movement in order to understand the victory of Evo Morales, which is a victory for the indigenous peoples of the world AND for anti-imperialism/anti-capitalism.  If there is ever to be socialism and just societies in the Americas, the leadership and form of it must come from the indigenous peoples.  Peruvian communist pioneer, José Carlos Maríategui, recognized this reality, and it’s time to take another look at past and future strategies and not just pay guilty lip service to the “plight” of indigenous peoples.1

Here’s a short history, with references for further study, of the international indigenous movement.

In 1972, without the knowledge or participation of indigenous peoples, the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (now called Sub-Commission on the Promotion
and Protection of Human Rights
), began work on the Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations.  A member of the Sub-Commission, Ambassador José R. Martínez Cobo of Ecuador, was selected as Rapporteur.  After several years, it seemed the Study might be left uncompleted.  However, the 1977 international conference on Indians of the Americas breathed new life into the study as a foothold within the UN to build a space for indigenous peoples to participate.  In 1981, the Sub-Commission approved the establishment of a Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which has met annually, 1982 to the present.  (Subsequently, the Working Group produced further expert studies on land, intellectual property, treaties, and agreements.) The Study commissioned in 1972 was completed a decade later in 1982, having taken longer than any other study in the history of the United Nations.2  This essay covers that same period, particularly the last five years of that decade during which indigenous representatives took control of the new item on the UN human rights agenda.

This was not an auspicious beginning.  The Sub-Commission is composed of 26 “independent experts,” who serve technically in their own capacity, but are elected by the UN Commission on Human Rights from nominations made by UN member states.3  The Commission on Human Rights, the parent body of the Sub-Commission, is composed of UN member states, as is the Commission’s parent, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), a parallel body to the UN General Assembly that focuses on human rights and social issues.  (Although the Sub-Commission’s original mandate was to prepare comprehensive reports in the areas of discrimination and minorities, it actually did much more, presenting dozens of resolutions to the Commission regarding all aspects of human rights.  For that reason, the name of the Sub-Commission was changed, without changing its structure and status.  All the Sub-Commission members are close to, or work within, the foreign ministries of their respective governments.  Several members also serve as their nations’ representatives to the UN Commission on Human Rights.)  The Sub-Commission is the only official body of the UN in which non-governmental organizations (hereafter NGOs) enjoy full access and participation.  However, the NGOs were required to have official recognition and consultative status under ECOSOC, which involved an arduous process of application and approval by consensus.  Also, human rights issues, as well as development and disarmament, are centered at United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, an expensive and inaccessible site for indigenous peoples.

In the first stages of the study on Indigenous Peoples, governments were sent lengthy questionnaires, which formed the basis of monographs on state practices.  The Rapporteur also had the authority to solicit and receive information from experts and ECOSOC-recognized NGOs.  During each session of the Sub-Commission, which annually convenes in Geneva for the month of August, interim reports on the study were submitted in the form of chapters.  Between the 1975 and 1978 sessions, no reports were submitted, and it seemed that the study, whose reports had not been met with any great enthusiasm on the part of the Sub-Commission members, would simply be discontinued.  Martínez Cobo was no longer a member of the Sub-Commission, and none of the members appeared interested in reviving the study.  However, the 1977 International Conference on Indigenous Peoples of the Americas asked, among other things, that the Sub-Commission establish a Working Group on Indigenous Populations.  Thus, the conference and direct participation of indigenous representatives revived the study and stimulated new interest in the question.  Martínez Cobo, as an outside expert, was appointed to complete the study.

The definition used by the Sub-Commission for the study, the definition that persists, is the following:

Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, and, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduces them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a State structure which incorporates mainly the national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant.

In its elaboration of the definition, the Sub-Commission made it clear that the subordinate position of such groups is unrelated to population figures; equally, it is irrelevant whether the groups live in more than one country or are scattered throughout a particular country.  On the other hand, the study took into account the factor of circumstance that established the particular relationship between the state in question and the indigenous group under study, as well as the national and cultural characteristics that form the basis of the state structure.

The definition’s fundamental consideration was the existence of certain groups prior to the establishment of the state, as well as whether the original inhabitants and their descendants are regarded as indigenous in relation to the colonizers and their descendants.  As long as the group remains so identified, the degree of racial intermixing with the colonizers or any other group is not relevant, removing the possibility of racial identification per se.

The definition of indigenous also assumed that the original groups or their descendants were forced to live under the new state structure when it was established and had no voice in creating it.  In general, although not in all cases, the definition would apply to groups who are rural and whose land ownership systems are based on the clan or community — rather than private — ownership and whose land base is not recognized as a nation.

The time-scale established relates to whether the group was present at the time the colonizers arrived, not whether they had always been there or had migrated there from other regions in pre-colonial periods:

This study is not concerned with the question of establishing who may have been the original inhabitants of a country or region . . . in most countries at least substantial groups of the present inhabitants are descendants of people who arrived there from other parts of the world at one time or another.4

The definition uses the terminology “present territory of a country,” rather than “country,” explaining that it is doubtful whether, at the time of first contact, the country existed as a state or had the same territory as today.  In explaining the terminology, “by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition,” the analysis clarifies this as meaning simply “by colonization.”

In reference to the phrase, “who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part,” the elaboration is worth reproducing in full:

No existing indigenous population can validly be said to conform to institutions it has maintained, unchanged, since the time of the conquest, settlement or other form of reduction to a non-dominant or colonial condition.  What are now known as ‘indigenous institutions’ are a mixture, in varying degrees, of colonial and precolonial institutions as adapted by the indigenous populations to their new condition.  Nevertheless, it is necessary to indicate that indigenous populations ‘today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part.’  This wording seeks to avoid any characterizations of the customs and traditions beyond the fact that they are ‘particular’ to such groups, not whether they were originally their own or not.

The analysis makes clear that the definition is not intended to attack the very existence of state structures when it characterizes them as mainly reflecting the national, social and cultural characteristics of the dominant segments of the population, but rather that the reference is to the reality of the “non-neutral State structure.”  The study identifies this as the crux of the problem and calls for protective measures favoring the indigenous populations.

Due to its long and unusual history, the study is more like two separate studies.  The first part of the Sub-Commission study, based on reports from the first three years of the study, 1973-75, is dry and legalistic, as well as being paternalistic in that indigenous peoples were not involved.   It nevertheless contains important material and constitutes an archive on state policies and claims.  The second part of the study is more dynamic and balanced, with the inclusion of material from indigenous organizations and experts and other non-governmental sources. 

The first interim report6 submitted to the Sub-Commission’s 1973 session contains all measures adopted by the UN that are applicable to indigenous peoples, including the UN Charter.  The International Labor Organization (ILO) 1957 Convention on Tribal and Indigenous Populations was analyzed in detail.  More importantly, three other international treaties were taken up: the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; the Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery; and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  In addition, actions and initiatives by all organs of the UN are reviewed, together with actions taken by its specialized agencies. 

The 1974 report7 outlines actions taken by the Organization of American States (OAS), the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Indian Institute.  Finally, it began preliminary consideration of certain substantive aspects of the problem of discrimination against indigenous peoples in the areas of housing, political rights, religious rights and practices, protection of sacred places and objects, and protection of places and objects of archaeological interest. 

The 1975 report8 was structured around the governments’ questionnaire responses as well as information from experts.  The first issue dealt with was definition.  The definition of indigenous populations was analyzed in terms of ancestry, culture, religion, the fact of living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, livelihood, language, group consciousness, acceptance by the indigenous community, residence in certain parts of the country, legal definitions, change in status from indigenous to non-indigenous and vice versa, registration and certification, and the decision-making authority in deciding who is and who is not indigenous.  The report also dealt with population, both composition and statistical trends, although the analysis was superficial and incomplete.

After two years of no reports, the study resumed in 1978, and the report from the following years, up to the final report in 1982, reflect the participation of indigenous representatives.

Two important individuals behind the scenes in Geneva played key roles in incorporating indigenous peoples into the UN human rights agenda.  One was Augusto Willemsen-Diaz, a Guatemalan international law specialist and longtime staff member of the UN human rights secretariat.   Although not Mayan himself, Willemsen-Diaz was preoccupied with the situation of the Mayan people who comprised the majority of the Guatemalan population, a situation that would soon turn into state genocide against them.  He befriended and convinced Martínez Cobo to propose the Sub-Commission study of indigenous peoples. Willemsen Diaz also made certain that indigenous peoples be a category in the UN Decade to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Apartheid, which began in 1973.9  The Decade focused on apartheid in South Africa, but also dealt with peoples living under military occupation and migrant workers.  His goal was to build a base of documentation upon which indigenous peoples could construct infrastructure within the UN system.  Willemsen-Diaz was the actual architect of the Sub-Commission study and the definition of indigenous peoples for the study.  Until his retirement, and even afterwards, Willemsen-Diaz served as an unpaid consultant to indigenous peoples at the United Nations, mentoring the initial activists, including myself. 

The other influential individual was Jimmie Durham, a Cherokee and a successful sculptor and artist, who lived in Geneva during the late 1960s and early 1970s when his wife worked for the World Council of Churches (WCC), which is based in Geneva. This was a time of national liberation movements for decolonization, particularly in Africa, inspired and emboldened by Vietnamese resistance to United States’ aggression.  In Geneva, Durham befriended a number of the African liberation leaders who came there to present their cases at the UN, including Amilcar Cabral of PAIGC, the liberation front in Guinea Bissau, the African National Congress (ANC) and South-west African People’s Organization (SWAPO) of southern Africa, and those of Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.  From afar, Durham followed the birth of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the United States, from the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz to the 1972 seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington DC, and, most importantly, the over two month siege at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation.  He returned to the United States at that time, met with AIM leaders, and proposed an international project that was realized in the June 1974 founding of the International Indian Treaty Council, (IITC) which Durham headed for the following six years, gaining ECOSOC non-governmental organization status for the IITC in 1977.  Even before that, Durham had persuaded some of the most important international NGOs to sponsor a conference on Indians of the Americas at UN offices in Geneva.  These organizations included the WCC, the World Peace Council (WPC), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), and others.

At the same time, the National Indian Brotherhood of Canada, headed by George Manuel, the National Congress of American Indians in the United States, headed by Joe de la Cruz and Phillip (Sam) Deloria, and the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), an international NGO founded by the Nordic Sami (“Lapland”) Council, gained ECOSOC status in 1977.

The key event that marked the beginning of indigenous peoples’ direct activity in the international context was the 1977 International Non-Governmental Organizations’ (NGO) Conference on Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ offices in Geneva.  The more than one hundred indigenous representatives from all over the western hemisphere reflected organized forces of inestimable dimensions.

The conference was initiated by the IITC10 and was organized by the NGO Sub-Committee on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Apartheid, and Colonialism, of the Special NGO Committee on Human Rights, based in Geneva, and was made up of an influential and broad-based group of international NGOs.  More than fifty international NGOs with Consultative Status in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) registered for the conference, and thirty-eight UN member nations officially participated.  The conference formulated a program of action11 for NGOs with recommendations to submit all documents to divisions of the UN.12  The twelfth of October (“Columbus Day”) was declared International Day of Solidarity and Mourning with Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, with a view to establishment of a permanent United Nations day honoring indigenous peoples.13

The recommendations included a call for respect for traditional law and customs and for unrestricted rights of land ownership and control over natural resources by indigenous peoples in their territories.  The conference found that indigenous peoples in the Americas have the right to own land communally and manage it according to their traditions and that such ownership must be recognized and protected in international as well as national laws.  Governments of all the states of the western hemisphere were called upon to ratify the Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations’ human rights conventions.  A recommendation was made for the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to establish a Working Group on Indigenous Peoples.  This recommendation was taken up in the 1981 session of the Sub-Commission, and was approved by the Commission on Human Rights and ECOSOC in their 1982 sessions.  The newly established Working Group on Indigenous Populations met for the first time in August 1982.

The indigenous representatives participating in the 1977 conference in all-night sessions hammered out a document that they submitted collectively.  This document, entitled “Draft Declaration of Principles for the Defense of the Indigenous Nations and Peoples of the Western Hemisphere,”14 represents the dominant theme of the conference and set the basis for subsequent UN negotiations regarding the question of indigenous peoples.  The declaration contains 13 brief and unequivocal statements of indigenous rights:

 (1) Recognition of Indigenous nations: Indigenous people shall be accorded recognition as nations, and proper subjects of international law, provided the people concerned desire to be recognized as a nation and meet the fundament requirement of nationhood, namely: (a) having a permanent population; (b) having a defined territory; (c) having a government; (d) having the ability to enter into relations with other states.

(2) Subjects of International Law: Indigenous groups not meeting the requirements of nationhood are hereby declared to be subjects of international law and are entitled to the protection of this Declaration, provided they are identifiable groups having bonds of language, heritage, tradition, or other common identity.

(3) Guarantee of Rights: No indigenous nation or group shall be deemed to have fewer rights or lesser status for the sole reason that the nation or group has not entered into recorded treaties or agreements with any state.

(4) Accordance of Independence: Indigenous nations or groups shall be accorded such degree of independence as they may desire in accordance with international law.

(5) Treaties and Agreements: Treaties and other agreements entered into by indigenous nations or groups with other states, whether denominated as treaties or otherwise, shall be recognized and applied in the same manner and according to the same international laws and principles as the treaties and agreements entered into by their states.

(6) Abrogation of Treaties and Other Rights: Treaties and agreements made with indigenous nations or groups shall not be subject to unilateral abrogation.  In no event may the municipal laws of any state serve as a defense to the failure to adhere to and perform the terms of treaties and agreements made with indigenous nations or groups.  Nor shall any state refuse to recognize and adhere to treaties or other agreements due to changed circumstances where the change in circumstances has been substantially caused by the state asserting that such change has occurred.

(7) Jurisdiction: No state shall assert or claim to exercise any right of jurisdiction over any indigenous nation or group unless pursuant to a valid treaty or other agreement freely made with the lawful representatives of indigenous nation or group concerned.  All actions on the part of any state which derogate from the indigenous nations’ or groups’ right to exercise self-determination shall be the proper concern of existing international bodies.

(8) Claims to Territory: No state shall claim or retain, by right of discovery or otherwise, the territories of an indigenous nation or group, except such lands as may have been lawfully acquired by valid treaty or other cessation freely made.

(9) Settlement of Disputes: All states in the Western hemisphere shall establish through negotiations or other appropriate means a procedure for the binding settlement of disputes, claims, or other matters relating to indigenous nations or groups.  Such procedures shall be mutually acceptable to the parties, fundamentally fair, and consistent with international law.  All procedures presently in existence which do not have the endorsement of the indigenous nations or groups concerned, shall be ended, and new procedures shall be instituted consistent with this Declaration.

(10) National and Cultural Integrity: It shall be unlawful for any state to take or permit any action or course of conduct with respect to an indigenous nation or group which will directly or indirectly result in the destruction or disintegration of such indigenous nation or group or otherwise threaten the national or cultural integrity of such nation or group, including, but not limited to, the imposition and support of illegitimate governments and the introduction of non-indigenous religions to indigenous peoples by non-indigenous missionaries.

(11) Environmental Protection: It shall be unlawful for any state to make or permit any action or course of conduct with respect to the territories of an indigenous nation or group which will directly or indirectly result in the destruction or deterioration of an indigenous nation or group through the effects of pollution of earth, air, water, or which in any way depletes, displaces or destroys any natural resources or other resources under the dominion of, or vital livelihood of an indigenous nation or group.

(12) Indigenous Membership: No state, through legislation, regulation, or other means, shall take actions that interfere with the sovereign power of an indigenous nation or group to determine its own membership.

(13) Conclusion: All of the rights and obligations declared herein shall be in addition to all rights and obligations existing under international law.

The declaration could be characterized as the fundamental political document of the international indigenous movement, and would provide the basis for the elaboration of the Draft Declaration of Principles for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Working Group on Indigenous Populations that became the subject of a decade of negotiations in the Commission on Human Rights, remaining unresolved.    

Another recommendation made by the 1977 conference was to its own constituency to organize a conference that would focus on the land and its relationship to indigenous rights, broadening the geographical scope to global.  The NGO Sub-Committee on Racism followed through with this directive and organized the International NGO Conference on Indigenous Peoples and the Land, which was held from 15-18 September 1981 at the UN in Geneva.

The 1981 conference was organized into four commissions, whose individual reports made up the final report, covering the following areas: land rights; international treaties and agreements; land reform and systems of tenure; indigenous philosophy; and the impact of nuclear arms build-up.  Five indigenous international and regions groups were invited to solicit and submit documentation for the conference and to organize delegations: the IITC; the WCIP; and the South American Indian Council (CISA); the Australian National Conference of Aborigines; and the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC), and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.15

Participants in the 1981 conference included 150 indigenous representatives from the Americas, as well as aboriginal representatives from Australia and Sami delegates from Norway.  Fewer governments participated officially than in 1977, due at least in part to the call by the Reagan administration for a government boycott of the conference.  Among Western countries, only the government of Norway registered, although other governments were present unofficially, and dozens of African, Asian, and Latin American governments registered and attended.  Nearly 50 international NGOs with consultative ECOSOC status registered.  Dozens of scholars and experts participated as individuals.

A striking aspect of the 1981 conference was the active participation of several national liberation organizations, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the SWAPO, with the latter representative chairing the Commission on Transnationals.16  The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front/Revolutionary Democratic Front (FMLN/FDR) of El Salvador also participated, and special sessions were held on El Salvador, Angola, Namibia, and Nicaragua.  The government of Nicaragua sent a special delegation headed by Comandante Lumberto Campbell, Vice-Minister for the Atlantic Coast, and representatives of the Miskitu and Sumu indigenous communities. 

The participants unanimously supported the conference’s final declaration and resolutions, which manifested solidarity with indigenous peoples in their “just struggle for self-determination and for the right to determine the development and use of their land and resources, and to live in accordance with their values and philosophy.”

One of the excuses for the Reagan administration boycott was the presence of Romesh Chandra of the WPC as president of both the 1977 and 1981 conferences, and Edith Ballantyne, Secretary General of the WILPF.  The Reagan administration accused Chandra and the WPC of being a Soviet front, and Ballantyne and WILPF of being Soviet dupes.  These were also the days of the Cold War and binary politics in the United Nations.  This had not been an issue in 1977 with the Carter administration, which was claiming to champion international human rights.  President Carter’s UN representative, Dr. Andrew Young, a high-profile African American civil rights leader, cooperated to some extent with the IITC in organizing the 1977 conference, although he expressed his displeasure with the initiative.  The Carter administration sent two activist Native Americans, Kirk Kickingbird and Shirley Hill Witt, as members of their delegation.  At the time, IITC people were suspicious of the cooperation and kept the administration at arms length to remain independent.  The Reagan administration was just the opposite, and the going was tough during those eight years.  Yet, much would be accomplished. 

Jimmy Durham had set the stage for the IITC to be linked with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the organization of African, Asian, and Latin American/Caribbean states and national liberation organizations that had been founded by Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt, and Tito of Yugoslavia in the 1950s, in order to avoid the Cold War binary and stake out an autonomous path for decolonization, nation-building, and economic development.  United States administrations consistently charged that the NAM was a tool of the Soviet Union.  However, it was a fact that the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc always voted in the UN on the side of NAM, not the reverse.  The NAM states were a varied lot with many different systems of governance, only a few, such as Cuba, being actual Soviet allies.17  The other international indigenous NGOs eschewed the NAM linkage and rather sought allies in the North Atlantic states.

Despite harassment of the Reagan administration, the Sub-Commission in its 1981 session discussed the next step on the completion of its study on indigenous peoples, and decided to recommend to the Commission on Human Rights that a Working Group on Indigenous Populations be established within the Sub-Commission.  The Human Rights Commission approved the working group in its 1982 session, as did ECOSOC.  The Working Group met for the first time in 1982.  Tribute for this action must be paid to the head of UN Human Rights, Dr. Theo van Boven, who was promptly pushed out of his post by the Reagan administration due to his advocacy for the Working Group and for other human rights initiatives.

The mandate of the Working Group is spelled out in the UN resolution that established it.18  It would meet annually up to five working days — this soon increased to ten working days — before the annual sessions of the Sub-Commission.  Its task was to review developments concerning the promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous populations, and “especially” information from indigenous peoples.  The conclusions from such reviews were to be submitted to the Sub-Commission.  The terms of the resolution were open and broad, despite attempts by various governments to narrow the task to establishing legal standards and writing a convention, both of which could be taken up within the broader mandate.  Importantly, the resolution called for open attendance by indigenous representatives regardless of ECOSOC consultative status.  The Working Group was, and is, made up of five members of the Sub-Commission, chosen by the Sub-Commission and appointed by its chairman.19

At its first meeting in 1982, the Working Group discussed its mandate and reiterated its broad nature.  The problem of definition was discussed, as were standards.  Several areas of concern were identified and discussed and these were summarized in the Final Report under seven categories: a) the right to life, to physical integrity, and to security of the indigenous communities; b) the right to self-determination, the right to develop their own culture, traditions, language, and way of life; c) the right to freedom of religion and traditional religious practices; d) the right to land and to natural resources; e) civil and political rights; f) the right to education; and g) other rights.20

Observer states at the first meeting of the Working Group included the governments of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Morocco, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Sweden, the USA, North Yemen, and the PLO.  Also represented in the session were several UN specialized agencies, including the ILO and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  The three indigenous organizations holding UN consultative status were present, as well as ten indigenous organizations without such status, eight of them from North America.  Its Director represented the CISA.  The ECOSOC NGOs that had organized the 1977 and 198l conferences sent representatives, as did numerous NGOs that had not in the past shown an interest in issues concerning indigenous peoples.  Soon, they would take up indigenous issues within their own organizations.

Despite the explosive and sensitive issues involved, a remarkable unanimity pervaded the establishment of the Working Group and its first meeting, certainly due in part to the excellent leadership of its elected chairman, Asbjorn Eide, a Norwegian and Sub-Commission expert-member.  Some observers pointed out that the presence and participation of representatives of indigenous groups was the key factor that did not allow the Working Group to become politicized along East-West Cold War lines.  However, it was the presence and testimony of Rigoberta Menchú Tun,21 a Mayan leader in exile from Guatemala, that galvanized that first meeting and set the tone of urgency that has remained inherent to Working Group meetings.  Menchu’s parents and brother had been murdered by the Guatemalan military in 1980, driving her and her other siblings into exile where she became the most important spokesperson for the Mayan people in their struggle to survive the genocidal project of the Guatemalan military government.  Allied with the Guatemalan military, the Reagan administration had successfully protected Guatemala from human rights accusations in the UN, until Rigoberta Menchú arrived, changing the situation.  Menchú went on to receive to Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, and was appointed UN special ambassador for the UN Decade for Indigenous Peoples, 1995-2004.

One of the mandates of the Sub-Commission Working Group was to draft a Declaration of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was completed in 1994. The UN Commission on Human Rights then established a working group to debate the text and forward a completed draft for consideration and adoption by the UN General Assembly.

The United Nations declared 1993 the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, August 9 the International Day for Indigenous Peoples, and 1995-2004 the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which was followed by a second decade, now in progress.

The United Nations Economic and Social Council established the “Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues” in 2000, the first institution dealing with Indigenous Peoples at UN headquarters in New York.  In 2001, Dr. Rodolfo Stavenhagen was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.

Over a period of nearly three decades, indigenous peoples’ representatives from the western hemisphere, the Arctic Circle, and the Pacific, along with a few groups from Africa and Asia, have participated in the above process and benefited from internationalizing their issues.

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has been hard at work trying to destroy the UN Commission on Human Rights as well as the democratic system (one nation, one vote) of all UN bodies, except for the notorious Security Council, which operates on the arcane method of giving veto power to any one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, that is, the victors from World War II (US, UK, France, Russia, China).

However, the international indigenous movement has already triumphed in creating a pan-indigenous movement, rooted in indigenous communities that now know they are on the correct side of international law. This is the key to the election of an indigenous leader, rooted in the indigenous community, to the presidency of Bolivia, with perhaps Perú and Ecuador to soon follow. In fact, indigenous peoples’ participation, unity, and experience in the UN system has worked to strengthen the role of civic societies in the field of human rights in the United Nations, which is the reason the Bush administration is poised to destroy it.


1   For an analysis of the establishment and workings of the international indigenous movement, see: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005).  The first clash between the new movement and a leftist revolution arose with the triumph of the Sandinistas (FSLN) in Nicaragua.  In organizing the Contra War, the Reagan administration manipulated conflicts over indigenous rights between the Miskitus of northeast Nicaragua and the FSLN, dividing the North American Indian movement.

2  United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1982/33, August 25, 1982.

3   For the history and functions of the Sub-Commission, see:  Ton Gardeniers, Hurst Hannum, and Janice Kruger, “The U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities: Recent Developments,” Human Rights Quarterly 4.3 (1982), pp. 353-370; and Peter Haver, “The United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities,” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 21 (1982), pp. 103-134. 

4   United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L566.  June 29, 1972.

5   Ibid.

6   United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L84.  June 25, 1973.

7   United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L596.  June 19, 1974.

8   United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L707.  July 17, 1975.

9   US administrations from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush have boycotted the UN initiatives on Racism, including the activities of the two Decades — 1973-1983, 1983-1993 — ostensibly because of the inclusion of the Palestinian question on the agenda.  However, although Zionism as Racism was removed from that agenda after the 1993 Oslo accords, the United States continued to be unsupportive of anti-racist initiatives.  The George W. Bush administration registered and then walked out of the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa.  Many US NGO representatives of color, including Native Americans, believe that the US rebuff to the issue of racism internationally is due to the institutionalized racism inherent in the US government itself.

10   The author was a member of the IITC staff organizing and directing the conference.  Delegates to the conference were elected at the annual meeting of the IITC in June 1977 at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.   The IITC also invited Latin American indigenous organizations to send delegates of their choice.

11   United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L.684 Annex IV, p.3.  July 21, 1978.  United Nations Sub-Commission, 31st Session, Item 16.  See also Official Report from the NGO Sub-Committee on Racism, Geneva, 1978, and Report from the International Indian Treaty Council, New York, November, 1978.  These and other documents are available from DOCIP — the Indigenous Peoples’ Center for Documentation, Research and Information, located at 14, av. de Trembley / CH – 1209 Geneva. DOCIP was founded at the 1977 Geneva conference with the mandate to collect and house all documents relevant to the international indigenous peoples’ movement.

12   The conference documentation was formally submitted to the UN Secretary-General and the President of the UN General Assembly in November 1977.

13   See Fact Sheet No.9 (Rev.1), The Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Programme of Activities for the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004) (para. 4), General Assembly resolution 50/157 of 21 December 1995, annex.  Find the Fact Sheet at: <http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu6/2/fs9.htm>.

August 9 was selected as the day (General Assembly resolution 49/214 of 23 December 1994 para. 8), and 1993 as the year for indigenous peoples (resolution 45/164 of 18 December 1990), while the UN Decade for the World’s Indigenous People spanned 1995-2004 (General Assembly resolution 50/157 of 21 December 1995, annex).   These dates were compromises after a long attempt by the governments of Spain, Italy, the Vatican, and the United States, to acknowledge the 500-year anniversary “encounter” of Europe and the Americas with the landing of Columbus on October 12, 1492 by celebrating that event in the United Nations in 1992, calling for a day, a year (1992), and a decade (1993-2002).  I was present in the General Assembly meeting in October 1982 when Spain presented the proposal.  I was shocked, then disgusted, when the Irish and the Norwegian ambassadors teased the Spanish that their countries had been first to “discover America.”  After a half hour of general hilarity, suddenly one of the African delegates stood up and walked out of the room, followed by every other African representative.  A recess was called, and the Western European and North American delegates appeared dazed and confused.  I heard one say, “Why on earth would Africans even be interested in the issue?”  I was amazed at their ignorance.  When the African bloc returned an hour later, its elected spokesperson read a statement that condemned the call to celebrate the onset of “colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and genocide” in the halls of the United Nations.  That killed the proposal, but did not faze its supporters.  The Vatican even wanted to expand the concept of “encounter” to include a phrase about the “gift” of bringing Christianity to the heathens.  During the decade that followed, Spain, the Vatican, Italy, the United States, and all the Latin American countries they could bribe brought full pressure on the African states to agree, but they never budged.  Meanwhile the international indigenous movement and local indigenous groups of the western hemisphere opposed it and insisted on those dates to honor indigenous peoples, a battle they won in the end. To pacify Spain and the Vatican for their total defeat, August 9 was designated as the day, and 1993 rather than 1992 was named the “UN Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples,” followed by a UN Decade (1995-2004) by the same name.  

14   United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/L.684 Annex IV, p. 3.  July 21, 1978. 

15   United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/476/Add.5, 198a: 56.  The ICC did not respond to the invitation.  The invited indigenous NGOs were selected due to their status as consultative NGOS with ECOSOC.  During the 1980s and 1990s, numerous other indigenous NGOS gained consultative status.

16   When SWAPO took power in Namibia and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa in the early 1990s, they developed a cooperative relationship with the international indigenous movement, developing initiatives for the San people (“Bushmen”), who are the indigenous people of Southern Africa.

17   In 1978, following the 1977 Geneva conference, I became a representative of the Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organization (AAPSO), a non-governmental organization with ECOSOC consultative status based in Cairo that was associated with the NAM.

18   United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/ Sub.2/L.772.  September 1, 1981: 3.  Only two representatives for indigenous issues, including myself, were present at the Sub-Commission to lobby.

19   Five is the minimum number of members allowed on UN Working Groups, as it is required that an equal number of representatives from the five UN regions be members of any UN body.  These regions are: the Western states, including Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand; the Eastern European states; Asia; Africa; and Latin America/Caribbean.

20   United Nations Document No. E/CN.4/ Sub.2/1982/33, August 25, 1982.

21   The author persuaded Menchú to attend the Working Group, after that the Sub-Commission, followed by the UN General Assembly in the fall of 1982, and the Commission on Human Rights in 1983.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has written three historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005) about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas. A version of this article will appear in an upcoming issue of Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz Reading Tour for Blood on the Border
Feb. 10 Houston,
University of Houston
1 PM
Susan Kellogg
Feb. 10 Houston,
Barnes & Noble, 7 PM CONTACT:
Feb. 15 Lawrence,
Kansas Room of the Kansas Union, University of Kansas
7:30 PM
Feb. 16 Austin,
Monkeywrench Books
8 PM
Feb. 19 Austin,
Resistencia Bookstore
2 PM
Mar. 14 New York,
7 PM
Mar. 15 New York,
Labyrinth Books, 7 PM CONTACT:
Mar. 28 Toronto,
York University
4-6 PM
Apr. 3-4 Atlanta,
Georgia State University CONTACT:
Apr. 13 Oberlin,
Oberlin College CONTACT:
Apr. 18 Burlington,
University of Vermont, 6-9 PM Contact:
Apr. 28 La Jolla,
DG Wills Books
7 PM
Apr. 29-30 Los Angeles,
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, UCLA Campus CONTACT:
Kristina Erbstoesser
May 3 Los Angeles,
Skylight Books
7 PM
CONTACT: skylightbook@earthlink.net
May 11 Portland,
Contact: Peter for Time and Place CONTACT:
Peter Handel
May 12 Seattle,
Contact: Peter for Time and Place CONTACT:
Peter Handel
May 13 Bellingham,
Village Books, 7:30 PM CONTACT:
Peter Handel