Fight Them On The Streets But Burn Their Wallets In Court Too

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) passed through the toothless body of international governance in 2007. The non-binding declaration obligates its signatories to respect the rights of their indigenous populations. The language broadly protects their rights to not be persecuted or forced to assimilate, it entitles them to self-determination, and it ensures that, “all human rights recognized in international law”, apply to them. It marked an advancement, a quarter-century in the making, in the international dialogue around political enfranchisement, human rights, and environmental protections.

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Hundreds of supporters gather on Parliament Hill, in support of a group of young aboriginal people who traveled 1,600 km on foot from the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Quebec on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo Credit: Fred Chartrand/ The Canadian Press

The legislated protection of indigenous human rights has intrinsic value for the future of the debate on human rights and international equality. To flip the Socialist credo, a benefit to one person is a boon for all people. By protecting indigenous rights to self-determination and freedom from discrimination society will gain productive citizens from the roughly 370 million indigenous people on the planet today.

But more importantly for this story, UNDRIP holds language that protect the rights of indigenous people to their historic land and a clean environment. Starting at Article 25 the document details their rights  to control the development of their ‘traditional’ lands, to consent to any government negotiations related to their land, to protect their land and the resources on it from corporate exploitation and pollution, and to have these rights protected by their governments.

These protections are non-binding but they do provide indigenous communities with a legal argument to stop Corporate exploitation of their lands. In This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate by Naomi Klein she illustrated the benefit of UNDRIP for environmentalist court cases by discussing an unsuccessful pre-Declaration meeting between Arthur Manuel, the spokesperson for the Canadian Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, and a representative of Standard & Poor’s.

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Arthur Manuel with daughter Kanahus Manuel at the Oceti Sakowin camp in December 2016.

Canada had appropriated tribal lands for fossil fuel exploitation without the consent of the land’s Indigenous occupants. Manuel (RIP Jan 11, 2017) hoped that he could leverage this fact to undermine Canada’s AAA credit rating from S&P. He argued that the Indigenous claim to the land, “represented trillions of dollars worth of unacknowledged liability being carried by the Canadian state”. He targeted Canada’s credit rating because it is a publicly vulnerable marker of economic health. The Canadian government could quash anti-extraction activists with the law, but if the activists recruited S&P’s credit rating powers state force would be impotent to the movement of the markets. The meeting ended with Manuel’s claims being dismissed by the S&P representative on the grounds that, although the native communities had the rights they claimed over their traditional lands, there were not any legal mechanisms to ensure their right to redress. They promised to continue monitoring the situation for change.

Three years later these mechanisms took a step closer to reality with UNDRIP. The United States voted against the passage of the Declaration in 2007. They were joined by Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. It received 144 pro-votes and eleven States abstained. The four states who voted against it all fell to International pressure in the last decade. Australia fell to pressure in 2009. America and New Zealand changed their policies in 2010. And Canada fully accepted the declaration in 2016, after first declaring it would adopt the resolutions in 2010. In 2013 Canada fell several positions in an index which measures an area’s suitability for the mining industry. According to a report from the Fraser Institute,“The uncertainty that comes with dealing with disputes over aboriginal land claims is a rising concern for miners looking to operate in Canada”. This pressure began to work against financial indicators because the native populations were engaging in nonviolent direct action against fossil fuel extraction companies.

S&P maintained Canada’s AAA rating in 2015, the report did not explicitly mention the indigenous struggle but it did indicate that an “unexpected shift in economic policy”, an erosion of the country’s economic profile, or “a perceived deterioration in the effectiveness and timeliness of policymaking” could lead to a future downgrade.

This should give hope to all environmentalists and indigenous communities. S&P consider their movements enough of a threat in their credit ratings that they are not outright ignoring them. Klein’s thesis in talking about indigenous rights is that these legal challenges from indigenous communities are a singular opportunity to turn around this battle. And if they can win land protections in Canada then the fossil fuel industry will shudder at the liability these victories place on their plates.

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Arthur Manuel, Hayden King, and Naomi Klein at the 2015 Toronto book launch of Unsettling Canada. Photo Credit: Naomi Klein/The Leap.


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