Panel discussion: “Indigenous Peoples, Human Rights and Legal Pluralism”
Participants to the panel discussion: Rosa Celorio (moderator), Laura Cahier (discussant), Rauna Kuokkanen (speaker), Walter Echo-Hawk (speaker).
On Thursday, March 18th, 2021, the International and Comparative Law Program at the George Washington University Law School, the Washington Center of the Institut des Amériques, and the International Law Society hosted a virtual panel discussion about “Indigenous Peoples, Human Rights, and Legal Pluralism.” Walter Echo Hawk (Native American author and attorney) and Rauna Kuokkanen (Sami Research Professor of Arctic Indigenous Studies at the University of Lapland) discussed the interactions between human rights and Indigenous justice systems. Dean Rosa Celorio (George Washington University Law School) moderated the panel discussion and Laura Cahier offered comments toward the end of the event. The conversation was particularly insightful in a context where Indigenous Peoples around the world continue to fight daily battles to secure many of their rights, in relation to the preservation of their lands, territories, cultures and traditional ways of life, among others. Both speakers explored the dynamic nature of Indigenous Peoples’ rights today, from the local to the global spheres.
Walter and Rauna discussed the ambivalence of Western legal systems toward Indigenous Peoples. Walter noted that “historically, the law has been used as a tool against Indigenous Peoples,” with some colonial doctrines having survived within domestic legal systems, like in the United States. In the meantime, both speakers insisted on the political and legal importance of the recognition of specific international human rights standards for Indigenous Peoples. In that regard, Walter noted that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) constitutes a “historic landmark and law-making moment.” Moving forward, the discussion illustrated the relevance of historicizing and critically analyzing international legal standards, by considering the specific contexts and epistemologies in which they are grounded. Rauna insisted on the importance of adopting a feminist and critical approach to international law, with the aim of making Indigenous rights stronger at the global level.
Overall, both speakers demonstrated how Indigenous rights have been advanced over the years, while noting how this contemporary human rights framework has mostly been shaped by Indigenous Peoples’ advocacy, agency, and mobilizations. Rauna observed that since the 1970s, Indigenous Peoples have been instrumental in redefining key concepts of international law, including self-determination and collective rights. The words of Rauna and Walter illustrated how human rights have also become a space of resistance. Indigenous leaders, groups, and communities have appropriated and advocated for these standards. They have practiced resilience and solidarity to achieve greater representation in governance, despite the numerous practical obstacles to voicing their rights claims, both at the domestic and international levels.
In that context, given the landscape of challenges that were mentioned, the discussion took an inspirational turn when each speaker noted the significance of genuine commitment toward Indigenous rights. This part of the discussion raised reflexive questions about how we – students or professors in law, lawyers, practitioners, among others – can understand and practice law in a way that does not perpetuate the imbalances of power or recreate further inequalities, but rather in a manner that is consistent with social justice ideals. In that regard, Walter Echo-Hawk, in his book In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2013), insists on the healing potential of the UNDRIP. He writes: “International human rights envision restorative justice as transformative social action intended to address root problems that led to the systemic abuse of the rights of Indigenous peoples, through remedies that become part of the healing process.” (Echo-Hawk, 2013: 11).