Can Colonialism be Reversed? The UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Provides Some Answers

Indigenous women join protests for land rights in Asia. Credit: IWGIA

By External Source
CANBERRA, Australia, Oct 7 2020 – Can a state built upon the “taking of another people’s lands, lives and power” ever really be just?  Colonialism can’t be reversed, so at a simple level the answer is no.

But in my book, ‘We Are All Here to Stay’, published last week, I argue colonialism need not be a permanent state.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which New Zealand is currently thinking about implementing, shows how and why.

New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States were the only UN members to oppose the declaration when it was adopted in 2007. They were worried about the constraints they thought it would place on state authority, in particular over Indigenous land.

All four have since changed their positions. In 2010, then New Zealand Prime Minister John Key argued:

While the declaration is non-binding, it both affirms accepted rights and establishes future aspirations. My objective is to build better relationships between Māori and the Crown, and I believe that supporting the declaration is a small but significant step in that direction.


The state’s right to govern is not absolute

The declaration recognises the state’s right to govern. But it also constrains it by recognising self-determination as a right that belongs to everybody — to Indigenous peoples as much as anybody else.

Self-determination has far-reaching implications for rights to land, language and culture and for government policy in areas such as health, education and economic development.

The declaration’s 46 articles challenge the idea of state sovereignty as an exclusive and absolute right to exercise authority over Indigenous peoples. It parallels New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi by affirming Indigenous peoples’ authority over their own affairs and their right to meaningful influence as citizens of the state.

The fact that 144 UN member states voted for the declaration shows that the international community regards these assumptions as fair and reasonable. The declaration states:

Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.


Indigenous people’s right to make their own decisions

The declaration provides different ways of thinking about political authority. The Māori right to make their own decisions, through iwi (tribes) and other independent institutions, and to participate as members of the wider political community implies a distinctive Māori presence in the sovereign state.

The Waitangi Tribunal, which was established in 1975 to hear alleged breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, is a forum for thinking about these questions. In a tribunal report concerning Māori culture and identity, Justice Joe Williams, subsequently the first Māori appointed to the Supreme Court of New Zealand, argued:

Fundamentally, there is a need for a mindset shift away from the pervasive assumption that the Crown is Pākehā [non-Māori], English-speaking, and distinct from Māori rather than representative of them. Increasingly, in the 21st century, the Crown is also Māori. If the nation is to move forward, this reality must be grasped.

From this perspective, the Crown is an inclusive and unifying institution. It is neither the Pākehā political community, nor the dominant party in a bi-cultural treaty partnership.


Beyond partnership to independence and authority

In 2019, the state’s solution to allegations of racist and ineffective practices in its child welfare agency Oranga Tamariki was to call for stronger partnerships between Māori and the state.

It is too early to say whether partnership agreements will reduce the numbers of Māori children taken from their families into state care.

But in 2020 independent reports into Oranga Tamariki show measures more robust than partnership may be required to assure Māori of the declaration’s undertaking that:

Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.

Claims to the Waitangi Tribunal, arguing for independent authority in health and education and ensuring that Māori benefit fully from international trade agreements, have had mixed success for the Māori claimants. However, the declaration gives international authority to the arguments made.

Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development. In particular, Indigenous peoples have the right to be actively involved in developing and determining health, housing and other economic and social programs affecting them and, as far as possible, to administer such programs through their own institutions.

A colonial state may never be just. But as New Zealand considers its implementation of the declaration, the important moral question is whether the declaration can help people to work out what a state will look like if it no longer reflects the colonial insistence on power over others.The Conversation

Dominic O’Sullivan, Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences, Auckland University of Technology, and Associate Professor of Political Science, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Lebanese Disaster

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Oct 7 2020 – The 26th of September, the Lebanese prime minister Mustapha Adib stepped down after less than a month on his post. The president, Michael Auon, stated: ”Lebanon will be going to Hell if a new government is not formed soon.” The question is if his nation is not there already. A horrifying image of the state of the nation was provided on the 4th of August when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, stored in a dockside hangar, blew up in an explosion killing more than 190 people, injuring 6,500 and damaging thousands of buildings.

Before a Civil War engulfed the country from 1975 to 1990 Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the East, enjoying a thriving culture, freedom of expression and a diversified economy that included tourism, agriculture and banking. Now, Lebanon suffers from endemic corruption, fifty-five percent of its population live below the poverty line, while more than 30 percent is unemployed. During the past year food prizes increased by 367 percent.

The first and only time I visited Lebanon was in 1978. My friends and I had been on our way to Baghdad, trying to follow the tracks of the Berlin-Baghdad Express. The entire stretch of this legendary railroad was no longer navigable, but we had read that most of the rails and stations were still intact. The railway was built between 1903 and 1940 to connect Berlin with the Persian Gulf. It had been financed by the German Government to gain access to Middle Eastern oil and facilitate provision of goods and supplies to German colonies in Africa and the Pacific. Furthermore, the railway was a strategic move to diminish Russian and British interests in the area. Even if World War I, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, loss of the German colonies and almost innumerable other obstacles delayed its construction, the Nazi regime could in 1940 celebrate the railway´s completion.

We came as far as Aleppo, where the rails turned east toward the Iraqi border, from there we took a bus to Damascus to apply for visas. However, at Iraq´s embassy we were told: ”Why travel to Baghdad? In these days life is complicated there. Go to Beirut instead, you´ll like it there.” A run-down taxi took us the 100 kilometres from Damascus to Beirut. Along the route we were repeatedly stopped at Syrian check points (the Syrian Army had in 1976 intervened in Lebanese internal fighting). When the startlingly young soldiers saw our worried looks they told us in broken English: ”Please, don´t worry. Beirut is fine, you´ll have a good time there.”

For Europeans like us Beirut looked strangely familiar, though destruction and desolation made us feel as if we had ended up in a parallel reality. We walked along The Corniche, the seaside promenade. On our left side were demolished apartment buildings and hotels, remains of the Battle of the Hotels that had raged the year before, characterized by heavy exchanges of rocket and artillery fire from various hotel rooftops and rooms. A postman passed by the ruins, placing letters and packages on the ground in front of them. To our left was the Mediterranean Sea, lined with stumps of palm trees. In front of a ruined hotel was an open-air restaurant with smartly dressed waiters attending an apparently wealthy clientele. Out on the sea, yachts lay anchored and speed boats raced by, towing water-skiers.

Lebanon means ”milky white”, probably in reference to its mountain peaks, which for more than half of the year are graced by snow. These inaccessible highlands are one of the reasons for Lebanon´s uniqueness. For thousands of years they have been a refuge for persecuted minorities. Maronites deriving their name from the Syriac Christian saint Maron had in the highlands been able to maintain their independence and religion. Their territory bordered areas controlled by the close-knit communities of the Druze, who do not identify as neither Muslims, nor Christians. Their scripture, Epistles of Wisdom, includes traits from the entire Middle East area finding their roots far back in age-old traditions. There were also Alawite communities sharing a faith considered to be Shiite, though their theology and rituals differ from mainstream Shia Islam. They do for instance drink wine and believe in reincarnation. In the Bekaa Valley and Southern Lebanon we find mainstream Shia Muslims, while the coast has traditionally been the territory of Sunni Muslim traders.

For thousands of years, refugees have found a haven in Lebanon. During the Armenian genocide in 1915, persecuted Armenians poured in from Turkey, their descendants now amount to approximately 150,000. Palestinian refugees arrived after the proclamation of the Israeli state in 1948 and now constitute approximately 300,000 of Lebanon´s inhabitants. During the recent Syrian crisis, 1.5 million refugees have arrived. With a population of seven million Lebanon is currently home to more refugees per capita than any other country in the world. At the same time the Lebanese diaspora is among the largest in the world. At least 10 million Lebanese live outside their country of origin and of them more than one million have maintained their Lebanese citizenship.

Lebanon is one of the few Middle Eastern nations that has been able to maintain its status as a democracy where free speech and tolerance are honoured, this in spite of more then forty years of constant clashes between its different population groups. On top of these calamities, the nation has during the last century suffered from foreign incursions. France, the U.S., Israel, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Libya have meddled in Lebanese politics. Armed forces from some of these nations have even invaded parts of the country, trying to take advantage of internal power struggles.

The same pattern was apparent when Germany through the Berlin-Baghdad Express initiative tried to tap the Middle East´s oil wealth, making the Middle East one of the scenes for power games between ”world-leading” nations, a tragedy that since then has continued unabated. Recently it was estimated that Lebanon´s 22,700 km2 offshore area may contain at least 95.9 trillion cubic feet of gas and 865 billion barrels of oil, thus wetting the appetite of not only its neighbours, but that of France and Russia as well, at the same time as powerful nations continue to consider Lebanon as a pawn in their game for world dominance.

Clans and influential families have for centuries dominated Lebanese politics and done so with foreign support. A situation further complicated by the fact that when clan members moved into formerly unknown territories family ties were often weakened, while traditions and religious convictions remained. It became important not where you came from, but whether you considered yourself to be a Druze, Maronite, Shia- or Sunni Muslim, Palestinian or Syrian, Armenian, Alawite, Greek Orthodox, or Catholic Christian. This is mirrored by a political system dictating that Lebanon’s president has to be a Maronite, the speaker of parliament a Shiite, the prime minister a Sunni and the deputy prime minister Greek Orthodox. Parliamentary seats are shared out proportionally among 18 religious groups, while public sector jobs are divided up among sects. Political parties use ministries to dole out jobs to their followers.

An anomaly discernible during the last months political development. Answering to socioeconomic demands, while seeking support from the country´s traditional political elite, the mainly Shiite Amal and Hezbollah parties were in October 2019 instrumental in bringing down the government of Saad Hariri. The president Michael Auon, a Maronite and former brigadier general who had fought pro-Syrian Druze and Palestinian militias, signed a memorandum of understanding with the two parties, making their parliamentary bloc dominant, though their disagreement about who is going to be finance minister is now blocking the formation of a new government.

Amal and Hezbollah supporters share cities and villages, while both parties are supported by Iran´s Shia government and Syria´s Alawite dominated regime. However, slight ideological differences and fierce competition for decision making positions caused a three-year conflict between the two parties, involving bombings, kidnappings and psychological warfare. In 1990, Iran and Syria brokered peace and convinced them to form an alliance.

Lebanon remains entangled in extremely complicated, clan- and family based politics. Some examples; the powerful Druze leader and socialist Kamal Jumblatt, was a supporter of PLO and backed by Syrian politicians who later became his enemies. Jumblatt gave crucial support to the Maronite Camille Chamoun (president 1952-1958), whose son Dany became leader of the Maronite militia, while his brother Dory led a coalition of politicians opposed to Syrian influence over Lebanese politics. After Dory suffered a heart attack in 2012 his son Camille Jr. now shoulders his father´s political commitments. After Kamal Jumblatt´s death, his son Walid became the leader of the Druze fraction of Lebanese politics. A powerful enemy and sometime ally to both the Jumblatt and Chamoun families was the Maronite Bachir Gemayel, a parliamentary power broker, allied to France. Gemayel saw his son Bachir elected President in 1982, only to be assassinated a week before his inauguration. His older brother Amine was elected to replace him.

President Saad Hariri who a year ago was toppled by the Shiite coalition fits well into this complicated pattern of related politicians. Serving as prime minister 2009-2011 and 2016-2019 Saad is the son of Rafik Hariri, a business tycoon who was prime minister 1992-1998 and again 2000-2004. A Sunni Muslim supported by Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and France, Rafik embarked on an aggressive economic policy based on privatization of major companies, foreign direct investments, and tax breaks. After an unprecedented rise, the GDP soon fell drastically, not hindering that Hariri´s personal wealth grew from one billion USD in 1992 to over 16 billion when in 2005 an explosion killed 23 people, including Hariri. On 18 August 2020, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon unanimously found Salim Jamil Ayyash guilty of the assassination. Ayyash, who is at large, is a member of Hezbollah and the verdict is now affecting Hezbollah´s prestige among the Lebanese.

COVID-19 adds fuel to the Lebanese disaster, while talks with IMF over a recovery plan involving a bid for 11 billion USD has stalled over disagreements between Lebanese politicians on assessing losses.

What about the disastrous 4th of August explosion? On the 21st of November 2013, MV Rhosus ported in Beirut. This huge freighter had embarked from Georgia with a cargo of ammonium nitrate destined for a factory in Mozambique, owned by a Portuguese company suspected of providing explosives for the 2004 Madrid train bombings. After inspection by the port authorities Rhosus was found unseaworthy and forbidden to live the port. The owners claimed bankruptcy and following a court order Rhosus´s cargo was sometime in 2014 brought ashore and kept in a sealed hangar. Four years later Rhosus sank just outside Beirut´s port.

The Rhosus tale is complicated, smelling of corruption and arms trafficking. It involves a shady set of actors – Cypriot, Portuguese and Russian businessmen, the Lebanese bank FBME and possibly Lebanese militia.

It is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of Lebanese politics and to avoid this I finish by taking consolation in my Beirut memories – of the postman making his rounds, delivering letters to owners of ruins and how people in spite of the mayhem around them went on with their daily chores and welcomed strangers in their midst. It is something of a miracle that a heartening, thriving mosaic of people and cultures still persists in Lebanon.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.


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