Thursday, November 22, 2007

The "Benign Neglect" of Native Rights

In 1976 the Inuit in Canada wished to divide the Northwest Territories into two, so that they will form the majority in the eastern half. This was seen as essential to the implementation of their right of self-government. Some liberals object that this proposal violates the separation of state and ethnicity by distributing public benefits and state powers so as to make it easier for a specific group to preserve its culture. But all decisions regarding boundaries and the distribution of powers in multi-nation states have this effect.

We can draw boundaries and distribute legislative powers so that a national minority has an increased ability within a particular region to protect its societal culture; or we can draw boundaries and distribute legislative powers so that the majority nation controls decisions regarding language, education, immigration, etc. on a state-wide basis. This form of native gerrymandering is often used to restrict native access to democracy putting them at a disadvantage, while at the same time advantaging the white settler constituents by giving them a disproportionate amount of representation in government.

The response of many states to these sorts of issues is the policy of benign neglect. This was first initiated during the period following the Civil Rights movement in the United States. The Urban Affairs adviser to the Nixon administration wrote the president a memo in ___ arguing the urban black population, now enjoying a period of relatively increased freedoms and liberties, could "benefit from a period of benign neglect" -- a period of rhetorical calm which is best interpreted as a call to abandon federal programs to improve the lives of black families.

The eastern half of the Northwest Territories were eventually transitioned to the control of the Inuit population in 1999 in cooperation with the Canadian government. The territory that now exists under their control is called Nunavut. It means "our land" in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit peoples. But what has happened in Nunavut should happen everywhere.

Group-differentiated rights--such as territorial autonomy, veto powers, guaranteed representation in central institutions, land claims, and language claims--can help rectify the disadvantages that native populations have today in contemporary American society. American and Canadian histories are full of abuses to native and indigenous populations. And by allowing indigenous populations the right to self-government and self-determination, we are rectifying past harms and allowing for greater democracy.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council, which mandates and discusses indigenous peoples' issues in formal UN settings. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a body of text that outlines the rights that the West has finally come to realize. Article Three states that "Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." This is followed by Article Four which states that "Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions."

Outlined here, we have a series of legal rights that assign traditional, natural property rights and natural theories of self-determination to those who are commonly neglected in legal settings. The rights as we seen them here, apply not only to indigenous populations in the Rothbardian-Lockean theory of natural rights. These apply to all peoples, and all natural squatters. My own ideas about territory and property here are much more in line with the Lockean-Rothbardian notion rather than the United Nations notion, since the idea that these rights apply only to 'peoples' of the indigenous sort does not take this argument to the logical conclusion, and that is that each individual has these rights as well.

But for the time being, it is important to articulate why these are important for indigenous communities. At its most basic level, these rights will make it more difficult for the members of the larger society, ex.g. white Christianized society, to move into and colonize the territory of the minority. Native reservations have seen this constantly. Mines exist all over Nunavut, due to excessive extraction and exploitation of their land which was set in place before their control. It is difficult to roll back these exploitations. If the Inuit had full control over their territories, as they should, the resources in their territories would be theirs to sell, not for corporate forces to exploit freely. In American reservations there is a lot of interference from the white community. Industries, commercial farms, commercial centers, and even residential areas have been constructed for the white community. The native populations are scarce, as it turns out, on their own lands.

Where these rights are recognized, members of the majority who choose to enter the minority's homeland may have to forgo certain benefits they are accustomed to. This is a burden. But without such rights, the members of many minority cultures face the loss of their culture, a loss which we cannot reasonably ask people to accept.

Any plausible theory of justice should recognize the fairness of the external protections, for the time being, for national minorities, and eventually give rise to internal autonomy. This is clearly justified, I believe, within a liberal philosophical framework, such as Locke's or Rothbard's or Nozick's, which emphasizes the importance of rectifying unchosen inequalities. Indeed inequalities in cultural membership are just the sort which natural rights lawyers says we should be concerned about, since their effects are profound, pervasive and present at birth.

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