Sunday, 14th of November – What a weekend!

This weekend is memorable in history for three reasons, but so far, only two have made the world’s headlines.

It seems to be occurring in much the same way Chompsky pointed out in his great movie; there was an interesting difference in newspaper column inches spent discussing the war in Vietnam as compared with the invasion of East Timor which was happening at the same time. Vietnam was receiving a lot of press and for a while at least, the US was made out to be conducting a just and rightful ‘peacekeeping’ war. Meantime, just down the international road, the completely defenseless East Timor was suffering from an invasion even more devastating, and yet there was no effort to help nor any interest in getting involved, as reflected in the lack of media attention… which would have possibly helped spark public interest… or at least lead to questions about the Vietnam business.

Free at last... again...

Apart from the boxing, the news this weekend is less overtly about war, and seems to be more directly about the potential for the shared enjoyment of liberty and peace.

I am very happy for Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma to hear and see that she is finally free from her latest stint of seven years of house arrest. I am also happy to have just discovered Wikipedia.org refers only to ‘Burma’ and the only acknowledgment it makes of the name ‘Myanmar’ is that it automatically redirects you to the page for ‘Burma’. Well done, wikipedia.org!

I am happy for my friends from the Philippines to find that Manny Pacquiao proved himself not just an excellent boxer but an excellent person, too.

Less noted by international media – so far – is something equally worth noticing and celebrating this weekend: Friday saw the signing by Canada of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Congratulations to Canada and all Canadians!

Carlos Mamani, Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Wikipedia has a good article introducing and explaining the declaration here (yet to be updated as of Sunday 14th November). This page is good because it describes the very lengthy, torturous process this important document has suffered in its lifetime so far, and how it has been the subject of debate and description such as “toothless” due to its ‘non-binding’ nature.

Why, you might ask, should anyone celebrate another country endorsing what is written on what is in effect a useless piece of paper?

The UN headquarters in New York

I was born in Aotearoa-New Zealand, where the powers-that-be apparently signed up (or rather, quietly ‘endorsed’ the document) earlier this year. The capital city’s newspaper led a couple of weeks’ worth of media chatter to and fro as to the value of the document with the obvious attitude of fairly pure denigration, ending on a fairly patronizing note to the effect that at least it does no real harm.

Seemingly by way of response a reply appeared from a local columnist agreeing that the declaration was non-binding, but: “If we are party to an international compact that states we think it is best practice to not oppress indigenous people, that we should find vehicles for independent decision-making, that must ensure support for the perpetuation of culture and language, that indigenous peoples should have access to education, health care and democracy, why would that be a problem?”

An even more positive comment came from Judge Eddie Durie, who stated: “Important statements of principle established through international negotiation and acclamation filter into the law in time, through both governments and the courts, which look constantly for universal statements of principle in developing policy of deciding cases.”

The important word here, and the only key noun to be repeated, seems to be ‘principle.’ It would also seem that a principled relationship is the kind of relationship to which Dr. Peter Sharples was referring when he outlined his positive view of the document. Others have described the document as holding ‘moral weight’, rather than being merely a legal ‘fishhook’.

Government representatives are not likely to sign up to any agreement that will result in their losing the political favour of a majority of their voters. Despite the decades of the wording of the text of the declaration being watered down, and its non-binding nature, it is a good move for all peoples from all lands that the representatives of Canada have agreed to this UN declaration.

Active Link: Video clip (15 mins 28 secs.) TED.com - Aaron Huey "America's native prisoners of war"

The weight of moral imperative now moves to the USA as the last of the four nations which refused to sign up to the document in 2007. However, it would seem as of only very recently that great issues continue to need to be addressed for first-nations and indigenous people in the land known by recent settlers as the USA, as also in my birth-land, and elsewhere too, to be sure. For one example, the excellent recent talk by the National Geographic photographer from the photo above and available to view here, sees him compliment his words with those of his subjects, the photographs alone of whom speak volumes.

Just to make it clear: I think the statistics about the ongoing health issues of some Maori in Aotearoa – New Zealand paint a similarly bleak picture of all people back home still dealing with the legacy of colonisation. In one important representative statistic, as recently as two years ago the number of Maori ‘medical practioners’ was still only 3% of the total; this despite the Maori population now being near 15% of the total in Aotearoa – New Zealand. Until the lack of qualified and practising Maori doctors and nurses is dealt with by direct and effective action, the ‘government’ is simply not doing a good enough job in both protecting the health of those clearly still affected by our shared history of colonisation, and in preventing the expenditure of tax money on the unhealthy citizens who will eventually need more support from the New Zealand state health system.

In conclusion then, the endorsing of an international declaration may not be directly effective, but it at least signals ‘aspirations.’ Another word for ‘aspiration’ is ‘goal.’ Goals are good. Endorsing the declaration is not ‘effective’ in and of itself, but stating and clarifying goals is a useful process that typically precedes effective action. And without a clear goal of what a ‘home’ land could look like, we will continue to drift through history while tripping over the mistakes of the past which our forebears merely brushed under the carpet. Dare we make the same mistake, or can we do better?

We can do better, starting with the ‘fourth estate’ – the media of our ‘democratic’ nations – who can lead the celebrations by sharing the news for this other important topic from this weekend, for which we can all be happy.

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