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<xTITLE>The Sovereignty Claims Of Indigenous Peoples</xTITLE>

The Sovereignty Claims Of Indigenous Peoples

by Larry Susskind
June 2009

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Larry Susskind
Think about it from their perspective. Assume you are part of a group that has inhabited a place for at least a thousand years. Your ceremonies and traditions date back a lot farther than those of the interlopers who now control every aspect of your life.  Your people have been connected to that particular place for all of recorded history.  Yet, now, the national government that surrounds you wants to dictate what you can and cannot do with your land and how your children should be educated.. That national government has sold the mineral rights out from under you (and kept all the money), polluted the waters you depend on, and stripped the forest that has always been your primary source of food. Wouldn't you be angry?

There are more than 300 million indigenous people in the world in this situation. There are at least 5000 different first nations in more than 70 countries. Most of these groups are fighting for their survival -- arguing that they should have control over their ancestral lands and be allowed to decide what happens within their borders.  In most instances, though, their sovereignty claims have been rejected.  In the United States, many Native Americans live in the worst economic conditions in the country.  They do not control what happens in their lives. While some Americans blame the tribes for their current circumstances, there can be no question that the American government has refused to allow the Indians to control their land and water and has not lived up to the promises that the American government has made over the past several hundred years.  In Australia, Latin America, Asia and in parts of Europe, First Peoples struggle for recognition and fair treatment.  While the United Nations has, after 25 years of discussion, finally passed a non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all with significant indigenous populations voted against it.  While the Declaration talks about recognition, it provides no imperative for the recognition of  the sovereignty claims of First Nations.

In Canada, First Nations control the land (reserves) on which they live.  They have rights of various kinds (both through treaties and constitutional mandates) that fall short of sovereignty, but guarantee greater independence than almost anywhere else in the world.  The Sarayaku in Ecuador, the Mapuche in Chile, the Amerindians in Guyana, the Adivasi in India, and the Yonggom in Papue New Guinea have far fewer protections.  In Israel, the 46 Bedouin communities in the Negev are not even listed on official government maps and their long-standing  land claims have never been addressed by the Israeli Supreme Court. 

Sovereignty (i.e. full recognition of their status as independent states) may be beyond what
First Nations can hope for in this era, but greater autonomy -- and perhaps even independence with regard to a range of resource, education, and justice issues-- ought to be negotiable.  

I don't see, though, how the sovereignty claims of First Peoples can be resolved in the courts of the very countries that have preempted their rights.  And, I don't think it is very likely that existing national governments will agree to have these claims adjudicated in international courts. To do so would mean allowing international bodies to contravene national sovereignty. (We've heard that argument a lot in the United States whenever questions of the World Court's jurisdiction are raised). That leaves the entire burden on individual First Nations to mobilize political support (both locally and globally). Given their lack of financial resources and their unwilling to engage in domestic politics (which would put them in the same position as any other interest group in a country when what they want is recognition of their sovereign rights), this is not a promising strategy. An international mediation approach might be worth considering.  In the same way that mediation has been used to resolve war and peace issues between contending nations as well as among waring factions within a country, it could be used to provide an in informal context in which national governments and First Nations could explore alternatives to full sovereignty.   

See Lawrence Susskind and Isabelle Anguelovski, Addressing the Land Claims of Indigenous Peoples published by the MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice for case studies of efforts by 14 indigenous peoples around the world to pursue their land claims.
(This can be downloaded for free at


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School -- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.

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