Forum Speakers Say ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ Shameful Root of Today’s Indigenous Oppression, Remnants Still Evident in Many Constitutions Must Be Removed
Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
5th Meeting (AM)
Debate on Theme Continues, with Speakers Reaffirming Need for Study on Way In Which 15th Century Doctrine Extended in Law, Policy, to Set Stage for Reversal
The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today again rang with strong calls on former colonial Governments to reassess their constitutional arrangements and restore the “first nation” status of native peoples, and on the Catholic Church to openly denounce the centuries-old “Doctrine of Discovery”, which many civil society representatives said was the “shameful” root of the humiliation and marginalization indigenous people still suffered today.
As the Permanent Forum continued its dialogue with indigenous peoples groups and Government officials on the impact of the Doctrine — the fifteenth century Christian dogma that provided religious justification for the seizure by early explorers of native lands and resources, and which later became embedded in international law and policy — speakers broadly agreed that it was vitally important to remove the disturbing remnants of the concept still evident in the Constitutions of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in African countries, and countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
A representative of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said that in January, an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples had presented a consensus report to the Australian Government calling for a referendum to be held on the Constitution. Such a measure would, among others, repeal its section allowing State Governments to target racial groups or exclude them from voting, and ensure that indigenous languages would be recognized as a unique part of Australian heritage.
“It is fundamental that these recommended changes to the Constitution are more than symbolic; they must ensure that our status and rights as First Peoples, including sovereign rights, are not diminished or impaired by the changes,” she said. Regrettably, there appeared to be little support thus far in Australia for inserting a statement on the rights of indigenous peoples in the Constitution. She said that the Government was, nevertheless, considering the proposals, and her group believed there were viable alternatives that would be more widely accepted, including through a “bill of rights”, legislation or mutually-agreed treaties.
A speaker from the Guatemala-based Organismo Naleb’ said the Doctrine of Discovery was linked to the “expansion and voracity” of capitalism, as well as the assertion that some peoples dominated others. That superiority impacted every facet of indigenous peoples’ lives. Therefore, reparation should not be solely for the effects of the colonial past, but also for present day actions, she said, where political, legal and economic systems eradicated indigenous ones.
Picking up that thread, a representative of the Mexico-based Secretaría de Pueblos Indigenas, said that while indigenous peoples had been accused of “living in the past”, there were many explicit examples of the modern ripple effects of the Doctrine, including in his region, where land was being expropriated and indigenous landowners were being evicted, jailed or kidnapped. Governments routinely ignored the tenets of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he said, and he urged the Permanent Forum to continue its efforts to make that instrument more widely known.
“We are still here, despite 500 years of trying to make us disappear,” said a speaker from the Seneca Nation, who also represented the Salamanca High School Model UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Echoing the sentiment of many speakers, she said that every wrong that had led to the creation of each of the Declaration’s articles could be traced to the laws and beliefs created by that dogma. “The Doctrines of Discovery should never again be allowed to be used as precedent for any decision,” she said, urging Pope Benedict XVI to acknowledge what the 500-year-old concept meant today. “We know that if you listened with a good mind, you would not let it continue,” she said, adding that her group joined with other indigenous peoples, as well as with the World Council of Churches and other Christian groups, in asking the Pope to apologize for the Doctrine and denounce it.
In response to calls on the Church for rapid action, a representative from the observer delegation of the Holy See, reiterated that Papal bulls were an “historic remnant with no juridical or spiritual value”. He invited delegations to consult the Holy See’s website to alleviate some of their concerns.
However, a former Permanent Forum member and a representative of Tonatierra rejected that statement as an attempt to remove all responsibility from the Catholic Church for both its past and present actions. “Indigenous peoples are here today to request full accountability for all parties involved in the historical implications of the Doctrine of Discovery,” she said.
The Doctrine and its underlying framework of domination had damaged the spirit of humanity, she continued, urging collective corrective action to be taken at all levels to violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights. In moving towards recognition, respect and protection of indigenous rights, the challenge was to confront the “sets of cognition” — such as the Doctrine of Discovery — that had deformed humanity’s consciousness. She affirmed the request for “deep exploration” of the manner in which the Doctrine had been elaborated, applied and extended in law and policy, through secular and religious practices, and to set the stage for its reversal.
During the dialogue, several Government officials reported on their countries’ efforts to review their constitutional frameworks, with the representative of New Zealand explaining that her country was carrying out such an exercise. New Zealand did not have a single written Constitution, but a collection of constitutional arrangements drawn from a verity of sources, including the Waitangi Treaty. The process had begun in 2010 and was being led by New Zealand’s Vice-President and the Leader of Maori Affairs.
An advisory panel had been established and was due to present its report in 2014, she continued, emphasizing that, throughout the process, the views of Maori communities were being actively sought. The review was wide-ranging, and covered such issues as Maori seats in Parliament, their electoral participation, and whether New Zealand needed a written constitution. The Panel had indicated that it would welcome views throughout the process on ways to reach as many people as possible. Finally, she said, the Government was awaiting the study to be carried out by the Permanent Forum on constitutional reform, which would focus on Bangladesh, Australia and New Zealand.
Also participating in the dialogue were representatives of the following: International Native Tradition Interchange; Indigenous Peoples Organisation Network of Australia; Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indigenas – Región Sudamérica; Chihene Nde Nation, San Carlos Apache Nation, Lipan Apache Women Defense; the Koani Foundation; Anglican Consultative Council; Foundation for Research and Support of Indigenous Peoples of the Crimea; Assyrian Aid Society; Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti; New South Wales Aboriginal Lands Council; Tribal Link Foundation, Inc. – Nepal; and Tinhinan.
Speaking as observers in the Forum were the representatives of Canada, Honduras, Nicaragua, South Africa, Colombia and Guatemala.
Representatives of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) also spoke.
The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 10 May, for a comprehensive dialogue with United Nations agencies and funds, and discussion of the report of the annual session of the Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues.