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date: 26 March 2019

Indigenous Self-Determination

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

All over the world, indigenous peoples are engaged in domestic and international struggles over their ability to self-determine. Though the specific character and aims of each struggle are different, most resonate with the definition found in the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which states in article 3 that “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.” The rights extended to “all peoples” under the UN Charter (1945) now explicitly include all indigenous peoples. On the other hand, the right to a State, or what could be called external self-determination, does not seem to follow as article 46, section 1, UNDRIP stipulates that “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, people, group, or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the Charter of the United Nations or construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States.” Even singular documents like the UNDRIP highlight the tension that exists between indigenous peoples’ quest for self-determination and national majorities who exercise control over them through the international state system.

The topic of indigenous self-determination is approached from many angles. Legal positivists strive to understand the implications of legal documents like UNDRIP, the International Labour Organization Convention 169, treaties, domestic laws, and, increasingly, sui generis, indigenous law. In debates about the nature, extent, and importance of self-determination, normative political theorists continue to study relationships between territory, citizenship, sovereignty, colonialism, human rights, justice, and institutions including the various legal orders previously mentioned. Increasingly, and combining the legal and normative with the strategic, indigenous scholars have taken the lead in debates that evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various political approaches in promoting and securing what they believe to be their inherent right to self-determination under difficult circumstances. These range from local cultural revitalization to international indigenous social movements, and often involve evaluating trade-offs between direct action and co-operation with states or between treaty negotiations versus legal actions. In summary, indigenous self-determination is a broad field of study with many approaches, most of which endeavour to understand and ultimately help achieve the emancipation of indigenous peoples from centuries of problematic colonial relations.