VIEW: Four votes of shame —Saleem H Ali
If we are to mitigate threats to national unity and contain conflict escalation, we must first acknowledge the past. In the case of Pakistan, it requires acknowledging past injustices against tribal groups such as the Baloch or the Kalash
After two decades of deliberations, the United Nations General Assembly finally adopted a non-binding declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples on September 13. The voting demographics were most interesting: 143 nations in favour, 11 abstaining and 4 against. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States were the quartet that voted to deprive indigenous people of a largely ceremonial endorsement of their fundamental rights. Pakistan happily voted in favour of this resolution, though I wonder how much our government really appreciates the status of our tribal populations. The list of abstentions was all over the map: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa, Ukraine. This resolution was not about some external immigrants trying to gain access to post-colonial resources, but rather an affirmation of the rights of the original inhabitants of the lands that we now rank among the most economically productive places on Earth.
The impact of this negative vote from the quartet on native communities was palpable. “We’re very disappointed... It’s about the human rights of indigenous peoples throughout the world. It’s an important symbol,” said Phil Fontaine, leader of the Canadian Assembly of First Nations in a press interview.
Why would the quartet miss an opportunity for such a chance at cross-cultural understanding with their own citizens? The arguments given for the negative votes revolved around contesting sovereignty and incompatibility with the constitutions of the respective countries.
Yet even if such contestations might prove to be true in a purely legal context, the fact remains that this declaration was purely ceremonial and no litigation could possibly be launched on its behest. The sole purpose of the declaration was to hasten the healing process between settler populations and pre-colonial indigenous communities. Regardless of how we may view social policy towards indigenous people at present, there is little doubt that settler communities in all the quartet countries benefited enormously from the victimisation of the indigenous inhabitants. From land appropriation to forced cultural assimilation, the impact of colonialism was most acute in these four countries where the colonisers also became the majority population.
All this declaration aimed to do was to acknowledge that hurt and move on. This declaration was no threat to any of these states in terms of a cavalcade of lawsuits. Granted that many positive laws have been passed in the quartet during the last few decades to give greater rights to indigenous communities but the statistics are still grim. In a Harvard study published last year, Native American males in South Dakota had the lowest life expectancy of only 58 years among all counties in the country — 33 years less than the highest life expectancy that was found among Asian women in Bergen county, New Jersey. Data from the other three quartet shows a similar asymmetry between indigenous and settler populations.
Sadly, many politicians continue to blame the victims as being culturally indolent or perpetually inebriated with welfare payments. Yet, we refuse to confront the underlying causes of despair in these communities that often stems from a sense of rejection and diminished self-worth.
As I have argued in these pages before, tribal populations constitute ancient social systems that historically provided a means of survival under hostile environmental conditions. In Pakistan, the term “tribal” has an ominous ring because of its association with a decadent form of medievalism that masquerades as conservative theology. At one level, we should try to transcend “tribalism” as broader conceptions of human civilisation become widely accepted; on the other hand, however, these tribal affiliations give us distinct and diverse cultural traditions — food, music and language, which provide texture and meaning to the fabric of humanity. It is this positive side of tribal identities that we should embrace, while rejecting the exclusionary attributes.
If we are to mitigate threats to national unity and contain conflict escalation, we must first acknowledge the past. In the case of Pakistan, it requires acknowledging past injustices against tribal groups such as the Baloch or the Kalash. This is only possible through collective healing processes such as those enunciated by the UN declaration, which also affirms that: “all peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilisations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind.”
Given their unique historical status, indigenous communities in the quartet countries deserve to be specially recognised not just for political correctness but for the larger good of democratic governance. The great American jurist Felix Cohen’s words come to mind: “Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, marks the rise and fall of our democratic faith.”
Pakistan should be proud of voting in favour of this resolution but the affirmative vote also brings forth immense responsibility. We should consider how the development paths of our tribal groups could be improved while celebrating the positive attributes of their cultural traditions.
Instead, we seem to cling on to the negative aspects of tribal culture (such as misogynistic behaviour) and reject the ancient positive aspects such as music and religion. There is a glimmer of hope that trends are changing. At least Islamabad now has a national museum that can institutionally support cultural attributes of our indigenous people. Let us make this UN declaration more than a mere document that resides in a database or a web site. Only then can we overcome the despair that ails so many of our most ancient cultural brethren.
Saleem H. Ali is associate dean at the University of Vermont and the editor of the new book “Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution” (MIT Press): Email: email@example.com