27 April 2009

No More Buffalo Soldier?

Many past U.S. Administrations failed to appreciate the negative international consequences attending the hypocrisy of pressing other nations to reckon with their grievous historical wrongs while refusing to admit America’s own. Descending from bad to worse, some chose to avoid the hypocrisy by refusing to press other nations on their historical wrongs. Worst of all, some entered into tacit pacts of mutual silence, reasoning that what becomes unspeakable disappears - or at least ceases to interfere in the to and fro of pragmatism in service of politics de jour.

The political/international relations problem with historical wrongs of peoples and nations, especially grievous ones, is that they are seldom simply wrongs that are past. The acts that constitute a grievous historical wrong usually form a series stretching over a lengthy period of time – months, years, decades, or even centuries -, hammering their effects into not only the victims but also the perpetrators and their relations. Thus, they linger in the present through their effects and transmit their poison to the future.

Although not its only grievous historical wrong, its treatment of Native Americans is America’s prime historical wrong. It stands to reason, then, that if the United States cannot own up to this historical wrong and its continuing effects, it cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy in calling other nations to account for their past injustices – or, worse, it must dishonor the ethical principles to which the hypocrite obliquely pays homage. The days of America’s free pass, internationally speaking, are over. It must choose.

President Obama is showing himself unafraid to face America’s history not only squarely but publicly so. His political courage, if you will, is exemplified in his willingness to acknowledge his country’s history vis-à-vis Native Americans.

In his remarks to the Turkish parliament on 6 April 2009, Mr. Obama, simultaneously encouraging Turkey to continue to strive to fulfill its democratic potential and to acknowledge its people’s role in the Armenian genocide, had this to say:

Another issue that confronts all democracies as they move to the future is how we deal with the past. The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history. Facing the Washington Monument that I spoke of is a memorial of Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed those who were enslaved even after Washington led our Revolution. Our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans.
Building on this, he went on to say:

Human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there's strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And while there's been a good deal of commentary about my views, it's really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.

We've already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day. An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. So I want you to know that the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. It is a cause worth working towards.

Who could gainsay that the President’s remarks took on greater moral force through his admission of America’s faults, including its mistreatment of Native Americans?

It is as yet uncertain, but the gathering signs point to President Obama reversing the previous Administration's refusal to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On 13 September 2008, when the UN General Assembly voted on the adoption of the Declaration, only four countries, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, of the 158 countries voting, voted against it (eleven of those voting abstained). Since then, Australia has changed its position and declared its support for the Declaration.

One of the signs pointing to President Obama’s reversal of the Bush Administration’s refusal to sign the UN Declaration is the recent Declaration of Commitment of Port of Spain proclaimed at the Fifth Summit of the Americas held in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The Declaration of Commitment stated:

Recognising the diversity and the traditional and ancestral nature of the cultures, histories and demographic, socio-economic and political circumstances of indigenous peoples, we reaffirm our commitment to respect their rights and we will promote the sucessessful conclusion of negotiations on the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigneous Peoples. Recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples is essential to their existence, welfare and integral development. In accordance with the domestic laws of each State, we will promote the exercise of their rights, their full participation in national activities and the creation of the conditions that allow them to overcome poverty, social exclusion and inequality.

The Declaration of Commitment was affirmed by consensus of the Western Hemisphere’s nations attending the Fifth Summit of the Americas. The still-draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a more detailed articulation of the human rights of indigenous peoples than the UN Declaration. Hence, if President Obama is, as the Declaration of Commitment affirms, committed to “the successful conclusion of negotiations on the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” he should have no difficulty committing the United States to the international human rights norms articulated in the UN Declaration.

Of course, only time will tell.

Should the United States reverse its stand on the UN Declaration, it would leave Canada and New Zealand alone among nations in maintaining their opposition. Moreover, should the United States accept the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Canada would likely be left alone in the Western Hemisphere in its opposition to both Declarations. The government of Stephen Harper has affirmed and reaffirmed its opposition to both Declarations at every opportunity - although it has kept curiously quiet about the Prime Minister's apparent commitment at the recent Summit of the America's regarding the draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Canada still revels in its self-image as an exemplar of not merely tolerance but acceptance of diversity and respect for human rights. It still points with pride to its efforts since 1982 to build a new relationship with aboriginal peoples based on recognition and reconciliation. Yet, Canada has for some time been busily running in place. The rest of the world has moved on. The recognition Canada is willing to give to its indigenous peoples and the reconciliation it offers them are increasingly apparently less than what the international community’s developing human rights norms demand. The question begs asking: will Canada embrace the hypocrite’s stance, even more regrettably, fall into silence on international human rights, or face up to its continuing injustice towards indigenous peoples and work to overcome it? As with America, so too with Canada: only time will tell.

Michael Lee Ross

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