The Oppressed and Their Rights
Slippery grounds and the palaces built on them
Perhaps ignored more than the traffic rules in India, human rights are conveniently forgotten by many countries. When it comes to indigenous people, we are further down the rabbit hole. The number of countries that were founded by suppressing the rights of indigenous people far exceeds our imagination.
In fact, America was founded on the basis of suppressing the claims of the indigenous people. They had de facto sovereignty over the area, and their territorial integrity was violated when their claims were rubbished. Territorial integrity is a principle of law that is used to prevent forceful acquisition, and yet it was completely ignored. Further, the people who rebelled were suppressed. George Washington said, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” Yet, George Washington himself, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, said that he believed the indigenous population of Native Americans were a “lower society” and came up with a six-point plan to “civilize” them. The Native Americans’ personal property rights were infringed upon when repeated forages into their territory led to them being internally displaced and moved to areas that were not even half the size of the area that they had given up. Acts were committed that could be called genocide in todays day and age, like the Bloody Island massacre. This violated the people’s right to live, a right guaranteed even in times of war, where other rights mentioned in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights can be put on hold. The great country of the United States of America that we know today was founded on the grounds of gross human rights violations, and sad that it is, this was never recognized, and worse, never acted upon.
What is "right"?
But not all is wrong with the world. In New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi symbolized the oppression of the Maori, the indigenous clan, and proclaimed sovereignty of the British over the area. The Maori protested, as they had claims to the land, but they were not recognized. For many years, their land and property rights, as well as basic human rights were violated. Yet, in the end, law and humanity prevailed. In the Wi Parata vs Bishop of Wellington case, the treaty was recognized as a simple nullity, which meant it had no binding force, due to the violations of human rights it had committed. The case was instrumental for the Maoris, and it led to the New Zealand declaration of independence, which made the Kiwis a sovereign nation that was under the British crown, or a Commonwealth country. The principles that the case used to make such a momentous decision can be seen as precedent and should have been applied in the case of the United States of America.
An argument that is used to defend such heinous actions, perhaps an argument that shows the wielder’s lack of moral compass, is that the law did not exist at that period of time, and so the actions cannot be called illegal. The fact that must be embraced, however, is that the actions were unethical, and thus illegal through Customary International Law. Customary International Law is law that arises through custom and tradition, manifested through state practice. Now, at that time, as well, all states recognized the unethicality of violating the rights of the indigenous population, and thus felt an obligation to protect these rights. Thus, the through the principles laid down through state practice, and by extension Customary International Law, the actions by America could be considered illegal.
It is also clear through these case studies how important human rights for indigenous people are, both at a macro and micro scale. If these rights did not exist, the indigenous populations would slaughtered, and we would live in a world where ethnic cleansing would openly take place on a national scale. If these rights did not exist, countries would, even today, be founded on grounds of injustice, and property rights violations.
But let’s think about the present, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People has recognized the need for a document that lays down certain rules for the protection of the rights of indigenous people. It has recognized the importance of such rights. Article 2 of this states that all people are to be treated equally. This does sound familiar, doesn’t it? It is something similar to the words of George Washington, words that were ignored in actions. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights also lays out principles of human rights that have accumulated through Customary International Law over the years. Yet, it has been violated multiple times, when deemed convenient. It is clear that even thought the principles of Human Rights exist on paper today, in other words, they are codified, and no one feels an obligation to follow them. Why?
Firstly, these laws, themselves are only morally binding. This means that the great punishment they could give you for violating them is a splotch on your conscience. Thus, in the international forum, where the love of power has overtaken they power of love, they have no effect at all.
Secondly, there is too much politics at an international and national scale for any binding decision be made basis any of the aforementioned principles. The important question is however, what can we do?
Instead of playing the blame game, and finding reasons to say the system is wrong, perhaps we should be proactive. Perhaps things will change, when we make change. What others do is out of our hands, what we do, however is not. Good leadership is about setting an example, and we must set an example. As a person, each one of us, must respect the human rights of indigenous people, be it in whatever forum we are sitting, the UN or a class assembly. Perhaps when we set an example, others will too, and when others will too, maybe our nation will, maybe then, the world will be moved.