Moving Day:  Protecting the Rights of Indigenous Migrants, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Aug

We’ve got to think now, in real terms, for that seventh generation . . . We’ve got to get back to spiritual law if we are to survive. Oren Lyons

The purpose of any ceremony is to build stronger relationship or bridge the distance between our cosmos and us.  Shawn Wilson

Something happens to Aboriginal people who work in hierarchies, whether bureaucracy or academic… You get to the top and find it bereft, bereft of passion, bereft of intuition, of emotion.  Amanda Sinclair

From a human rights standpoint, this was a less than stellar week for the UN.  We welcome a new High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chile president Michelle Bachelet, someone of considerable gravitas and well known throughout the UN community.  The departure of her predecessor Prince Zeid was a blow to many of us who have witnessed the suppression of many outspoken voices, the domestication of what should otherwise be a forceful and candid human rights concern, the politicizing of rights guarantees for citizens that should no longer be subject to debate.  The human rights community faces new threats, opportunities and discouragements, and we hope that Ms. Bachelet will be successful both in resisting large-state pressures and in insisting on the importance of the human rights pillar for any sustainable successes the UN is likely to achieve on the peace and development fronts.

Among the current disappointments this week has to be news reports on Saudi Arabia, both for a spat with Canada over rights guarantees for Saudi women and for the horror of a bus full of children bombed by Saudi jets with military hardware supplied by more than one UN Security Council member.   Last week’s tepid Council meeting on Yemen –with its welcome announcement of upcoming political negotiations – nevertheless kept the door ajar for fresh recrimination and violence for which the bus bombing will likely remain as a particularly galling symbol of our conflict resolution failures.

Less disappointing from a rights standpoint was an event this week on “Indigenous Peoples’ Migration and Movement” (on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples).  With the signing of the Global Compact on Migration scheduled for December in Morocco, this event had considerable relevance not only as a “test” of the ability of the Compact to address challenges relevant to indigenous peoples, but also as a reminder of state practices that undermine the rights of indigenous peoples to move themselves – but also their cultural ceremonies and languages – back and forth across state lines.

The event itself was rightly described as a bit “tired” by a couple of the participants we spoke with who stayed for the entire event.  Nevertheless some good insight was conveyed both applicable to the Global Compact and consistent with discussions held at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  The always thoughtful Miriam Wallet Aboubakrine, current Chair of the Permanent Forum, highlighted the non-binding nature of state and multi-lateral commitments to indigenous peoples and urged states to do more to combat host-state “fear” while “enhancing the skills” of indigenous migrants such that their migratory pathways can be safer and also more productive for themselves and those back home relying on their success.

Part of the reason why the event seemed flat at points is related to the difficulty in getting the full richness of indigenous cultures on policy display.  The discourse, especially from the indigenous activists in the room, tends to focus — at times obsess — on North American indigenous concerns.   There was certainly some effort to paint a broader picture, including from a representative from Thailand who cited the “traditional symbiotic relationships” that people in his region have with forests that were amply supplying local needs long before they were largely appropriated by state and corporate interests.  He also criticized government policy advocating state forms of education for indigenous children, bureaucracies that neglect indigenous languages, cultural expressions and often-passionate relationships with the natural order.

But much of the anguish was from sources geographically more proximate to New York. Indeed, perhaps the most compelling testimony of the afternoon came from Ms. Amy Juan whoseTohono O’odham community occupies the border regions between Arizona and Mexico.   Ms. Juan, a self-described activist without “academic credentials,” spoke eloquently about the struggles of indigenous communities living in the frontiers between sovereign, modern states.  Juan referenced the “restrictions on freedom of movement” that have intensified in this age of border walls and unwelcoming rhetoric emanating from our political leadership.   She even described pressures her community experienced from the US Border Patrol to refrain from providing water to persons traversing the harsh US desert “illegally.”  Juan noted that, beyond solidarity and humanitarian concerns, a “right to water” must take precedence over national politics and host-country inhibitions.

Beyond the sometimes compelling testimony there were two key takeaways for the Global Action folks in the room.  The first was related to the issue of the day – the impact of climate change on indigenous migration patterns.   As more than one speaker noted, but which was most clearly articulated by the representative from the International Organization on Migration, indigenous communities uniquely “attached to the land” have the most to lose from negative climate impacts, but are also under considerable pressure to abandon their ancestral lands once those lands can no longer sustain families and livelihoods.  Our current, collective efforts on behalf of climate health may still be enough to save our species, and we will know we have done our best work when communities – including indigenous ones – are no longer driven from lands made unproductive from drought, flooding and the violence that so often follows.

The other takeaway is more spiritual, if you will, more about continuing to bring together the extraordinary diversity and what Panama referred to as “dynamism” of indigenous communities to forge a new policy path and ensure that international agreements such as the Global Compact and 2030 Development Agenda take full account of diverse indigenous needs and circumstances.  Indeed, speakers were calling for a revitalized “brotherhood/sisterhood” to more effectively link indigenous communities on the move, one which prioritizes the need of women and children indigenous migrants, but one which more broadly commits to alleviating what the El Salvador Ambassador described as the “toxic” dissolution of identity experienced by so many indigenous migrants, persons struggling (often unsuccessfully) to avoid what Ecuador described as the “double discrimination” of being both “foreign and indigenous.”

I have been blessed over the years to have interactions with many indigenous communities from Canada to the Philippines and from Guatemala to the Western United States. I have seen first-hand the commercially-appropriated cultural symbols, the “reservations” characterized by lands largely unfit for agriculture or other sustainable livelihoods, the schools that make children fit only to abandon the cultures of their birth, the suspicion communicated from so many sources beyond the borders of ancestral lands. I have also been extremely fortunate to be connected to the late Terry Whitcomb, a family tie who spent much of her extraordinary life exploring – mostly through art and architecture — the often treacherous interplay in what is now California between indigenous communities and the Catholic friars who sometimes assisted, sometimes encouraged, sometimes humiliated, sometimes subjugated them.

As our climate continues its decline and our distance from fulfilling our sustainable development goals remains daunting, we can afford no more delays in ensuring the rights, dignity and freedom of movement of our indigenous migrants. Indeed so many indigenous persons can still claim that the “heavy handed treatment” they too often receive — born of fear, anxiety and ignorance—serves only to rob indigenous migrants of security and confidence,and the rest of us of their many life-affirming contributions.

 

One Response to “Moving Day:  Protecting the Rights of Indigenous Migrants, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. marta benavides August 13, 2018 at 1:21 am #

    Dear Bob, most important reflection and its interlinkages .. urgent concern and issue that points to the way to go if not only NoOneLeftBehind but in the no ones is also the planet Itself: “We’ve got to think now, in real terms, for that seventh generation . . . We’ve got to get back to spiritual law if we are to survive. Oren Lyons

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