Human rights are vital. How do we know when they’re implemented?
How can people verify that key humans rights are actually respected? For many years Canadian Friends Service Committee has focused on making sure that the vitally important rights affirmed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration or UNDRIP) are implemented. How is the Declaration—which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the “framework for reconciliation”—being put into action to create real change?
We were pleased to lend support to a United Nations (UN) seminar at the University of British Columbia in February on this very topic. The seminar was co-hosted by the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP). Experts travelled from around the world to attend in person, and many others joined on Zoom. The two of us were there in person, taking part in the discussions (Jennifer) and being part of the team making sure things were running the way they were supposed to (Jeremy).
Implementation of the Declaration is the process by which Indigenous peoples, states, and other actors come together to turn the text of the Declaration into concrete action. In Canada this has included passing the Declaration legislation that CFSC spent many years advocating for. Implementation also requires verifying that states and other actors are sticking to their word. That is where monitoring mechanisms come in.
“Indigenous peoples didn’t spend decades negotiating the Declaration just to have it sit on a library shelf.”
Over two days, experts shared perspectives on monitoring and what Indigenous peoples’ human rights advocacy looks like in their communities. The seminar was an excellent space for new ideas like this. We also created networks to strengthen the work of all involved. Participants included Indigenous leaders, lawyers, academics, and grassroots activists.
You might be asking, what are “monitoring mechanisms”? It’s a good question! Has someone ever promised to do something important for you? Maybe you’ve heard commitments you liked from a political candidate seeking your vote. How did you ensure they were keeping those promises after they got elected?
In the context of Indigenous peoples’ human rights implementation, you would use mechanisms that monitor the work of the people putting the Declaration into practice. These mechanisms can take various shapes, and experts at the seminar discussed many. They answered questions like: How are civil society groups engaging with states to ensure action on the Declaration? What about the national human rights institutions, the legal community, and academia—what are they bringing to this work? Can they do more? (Yes!). Can states do this work themselves? (No, that’s ridiculous!).
One of the presenters was Margaret Mutu, a Māori leader from Aotearoa/New Zealand and Professor of Māori Studies. She spoke of the Independent Monitoring Mechanism created by Iwi Chairs Forum, a national body that brings together Māori leaders and communities. The monitoring mechanism looks at New Zealand’s compliance with the UN Declaration. They have submitted annual reports to the government and to the UN. The monitoring mechanism is independent and experts are appointed by their Iwi (Nation). This is a concrete example of Indigenous peoples monitoring state actions on rights implementation—and a model that many are interested to learn from.
Creating effective monitoring mechanisms like the Māori have begun to do is an indispensable part of breathing life into the Declaration. Indigenous peoples didn’t spend decades negotiating the Declaration just to have it sit on a library shelf. The rights affirmed have to be translated into meaningful actions.
It’s been more than 15 years since the adoption of the Declaration—years with too few concrete actions globally or locally. More monitoring should encourage more meaningful action. EMRIP will release a report coming out of the work of this seminar that will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council this fall.
We continue to support many partners in the Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples as they work toward Canada’s first National Action Plan to implement the Declaration. When federal legislation was passed in 2021 it included a deadline of two years to develop the Plan. While there are very legitimate concerns that not enough has been done to ensure the Plan is truly co-developed with Indigenous peoples, we remain hopeful and committed to this work. We see the Plan as a beginning. It will definitely need to be monitored. A monitoring mechanism developed by Indigenous peoples in Canada would be very valuable!
The Vatican rejects racist “discovery”
Another development of note is that on March 30th the Vatican released a statement to repudiate the doctrine of discovery—something called for by Indigenous peoples for decades. The Vatican said historical Papal Bulls (statements from the 1400s) “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples” and that they had never been expressions of Catholic faith. Notably the Vatican also reaffirmed its support of the UN Declaration.
This long-awaited statement from the Vatican was the result of years of advocacy, and directly attributed to the calls made by Indigenous peoples when the Pope visited Canada in 2022.
The doctrine of discovery is racist. It is based on the notion of the racial superiority of European and Christian peoples and individuals. This false belief has been used to exploit, subjugate, and dispossess Indigenous peoples of their most basic rights. This ideology has led to practices that continue through modern-day laws and policies in Canada.
CFSC first became aware of Indigenous peoples’ calls to repudiate the doctrine of discovery while we were at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues many years ago. We then developed the Canadian Yearly Meeting’s minute of record repudiating discovery a decade ago. In 2013 CFSC also argued to the Supreme Court of Canada that discovery must be repudiated in law.
Moving forward, it is now critical for Canada to address how “assumed Crown sovereignty” is rationalized in law. The UN Declaration affirms the right to redress for lands and territories taken illegally.
As Canada is working with Indigenous peoples on the first National Action Plan to implement the Declaration, we are supporting Indigenous partners in their calls for decolonization, including restitution of land.
Jennifer Preston (Hamilton Meeting) serves as General Secretary at CFSC and coordinates our Indigenous rights program. Jeremy Vander Hoek assists the Indigenous rights program and coordinates CFSC events. You can support reconciliation by donating to the Reconciliation Fund at https://QuakerService.ca/ReconciliationFund