Niezen Lectures on Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples

Lucy Feidelson, Maroon-News Staff

Ronald Niezen’s lecture, titled “Indigenous Peoples in Global Organizations: Human Rights and the Politics of Difference,” discussed the difference between “people” and “peoples.” 

Niezen is a professor at McGill University in Canada where he teaches legal anthropology and anthropological theory. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and completed both his Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, England and taught for nine years at Harvard University. Niezen is also recognized for his notable research and books on human rights.

On November 28, Niezen disclosed the difference between “people” and “peoples” in the context of the United Nations (UN). Within the UN, indigenous peoples are forced to become combatants in “the battle of the ‘s.’” Member states often call indigenous members “groups” or “people.” In referring to them as groups, the indigenous peoples become faceless and there is an intrinsic implication of homogeneity. In referring to them as people, there is a similar effect – “people” implies that indigenous persons are all a part of one ethnicity and one way of life. 

However, this is not the case. Indigenous communities vary in their backgrounds, languages, cultures, and customs. It is imperative to recognize the UN Charter’s slogan, “We the peoples,” and to reject the slogan, “We the states.”

Beyond rhetorical disrespect, there are inequities in the attention and time allocated to the indigenous delegates.

 “We have a number of states that are not exactly friendly to the indigenous agenda, ” Niezen said. “They have their own domestic issues that make it difficult to recognize indigenous peoples and their claims of sovereignty, and their claims of self-determination.” 

Indigenous peoples’ claims are viewed as collective and are painted with a wide brush. Uniformly dealing with indigenous peoples pigeonholes their issues as unanimous, which is both neglectful and prejudical.

In the Republic of Mali, the nation’s motto is “One people, one goal, one faith.” Despite Mali’s ethnic diversity, it fails to recognize people as individual citizens, and masks the indigenous peoples’ separate identities with a superficial collective one.

Sophomore Peyton Gabriel shared what she learned from Niezen’s talk.

“From Professor Niezen, I learned that in order to respect and account for diversity, nations must identify people as distinctive individuals, and affirm that they have rights of their own,” Gabriel said. 

Niezen discussed that certain member states, particularly Africa and Asia, are especially reluctant to accept the claims of self-determination of the indigenous peoples. 

 “[Some member states are ]struggling to develop post-colonial nationhood … and establish themselves as legitimate players on the international stage and as part of the community of nations,” Niezen said.  

To them, in some cases, catering to indigenous peoples’ claims “seems to be tantamount to tribalism.” 

This kind of disregard for the indigenous agenda contributes to the negative reputation that the UN has acquired. On September 18, President Trump chaired a meeting on reforming the UN.

“In recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential due to bureaucracy and mismanagement,” Trump said during the meeting. 

Niezen claimed that many people such as Trump consider the UN and other global organizations to be “palaces of despair.”

Niezen, however believes that these international institutions are rather “palaces of hope,” explained in his book Palaces of Hope: The Anthropology of Global Organizations. 

“Hope is an important part of what makes the UN work,” Niezen said. “[The UN] can influence space and move things in a direction where indigenous human rights will move incrementally forward.”

For example, in 2008, Ecuador amended its constitution so that “legal personality” became part of the nation’s fundamental principles. Its constitution recognizes that non-human entities, such as rivers, possess human rights and “legal personhood.” 

 “Nature, Pachamama, vivir buen – these ideas have filtered up into the United Nations to the point that [they] become a reference point for an environmental awareness,” Niezen said. 

In a similar effort, on November 20, Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said that the Liberal government in Canada plans to sanction a bill that will effectively implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). For Niezen, this change felt personal.

“Until now, the sort of guiding principle of industry in Canada in relation to indigenous peoples has been referred to as the duty to consult. The duty to consult is very different from the free, prior, and informed consent,” Niezen said.

He attributes these changes to the long-term participation of indigenous peoples in the United Nations. Yet, Niezen still remains somewhat dubious.

“You might be skeptical about this, and in fact, I am too.” Niezen said. 

Canada, like most modern nations, has an economy that depends on extracted industries. Niezen posed a question to his audience. 

“How far is the government going to be able to go in recognizing human rights that are based upon claims to territory that might go against the interest of extracted industries?”

Unfortunately, it is likely that the rights of indigenous peoples and those of natural resources will not take precedence over economic prosperity. And the decisions that will determine whether social justice will trump fiscal growth, or conversely, are ultimately left to what Niezen calls a “regime of invisibility.” There is a hierarchy of causes, and the more globally influential and powerful members of the UN will finalize policies behind closed doors.

“It’s true that many indigenous delegates go to the UN for the first time every year, and you can see the disappointment when they realize that speaking into the microphone for three or five minutes won’t have the effect that they had hoped,” Niezen said. 

Their propositions don’t have enough broad appeal, and delegates often become disengaged after being “oversaturated with causes.”

Niezen concluded the lecture with that same sense of hope with which he started. He has faith in the UN system and the movement toward legal personhood of indigenous peoples and their territories.

Sophomore Ally Feldman offered her thoughts on the subject. 

 “While Professor Niezen did focus on the barriers that various indigenous peoples face when seeking representation in international organizations, he ended his lecture with several governmental actions that allow hope of increased rights for these communities,” Feldman said. 

Contact Lucy Feidelson at [email protected].