Posted on December 27, 2010

Obama’s Reversal on ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Stirs Concern Over Legal Claims

Judson Berger, Fox News, December 25, 2010

President Obama’s decision last week to reverse U.S. policy and back a U.N. declaration on the rights of “indigenous peoples” has touched off a debate on whether the move could boost American Indian legal claims over the ills they suffered dating back to the colonial period.

The president announced his decision at the White House Tribal Nations Conference last week, making the United States the last nation to endorse the statement–the Bush administration had opposed it since it was adopted in 2007. American Indian advocacy groups cheered the move, finalized after a months-long administration review.

But John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the “abstract” document–which in several sections discusses the “right to redress”–will probably be used to fuel new legal claims. And he predicted the issue would complicate those cases more than it would help either side actually resolve them.

“It’s a kind of feel-good document that has so many unclear phrases in it that nobody’s really sure what it means when you agree to it,” Bolton told “It’s wrong and potentially dangerous to sign onto a document that you don’t fully understand the implications of.”

The non-binding U.N. document includes dozens of provisions but generally states that indigenous people should not be discriminated against, should be able to sustain their own political and social systems, and have rights to the “lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned” or used.

Those concepts are not radically new. Americans Indians, as demonstrated by a spate of recent settlements, have legal rights to pursue discrimination and other claims against the government. Plus Obama’s support for the document follows his signing of a congressional resolution last year that officially apologized to “native peoples” for the “violence, maltreatment and neglect” inflicted on them by U.S. citizens.

{snip} A disclaimer at the end declared that “nothing” in the resolution would authorize or support claims against the United States.

By contrast, several sections in the U.N. document explicitly outline those rights. One article in the middle of the declaration states that indigenous peoples can be entitled to “restitution” for land and resources that were damaged or confiscated from them. The document says compensation “shall take” the form of land or resources or even money.


A detailed document released by the State Department underscored the importance of the “redress provisions,” saying the government would continue to work with American Indians to accommodate their territorial rights.


Carl Horowitz, a project manager with the National Legal and Policy Center who follows discrimination cases against the federal government, used the r-word–reparations–to describe those implications.

“It reflects a global egalitarianism,” he said. “It’s a shakedown.”

[Editor’s Note: An earlier story announcing Obama’s reversal on “indigenous people’s rights” can be read here.]