Lobbying for Global Indigenous Rights: The World Council of Indigenous Peoples (1975-1997)

Jochen Kemner,

Bielefeld University, Germany


The first-ever meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) in August 1982 in Geneva marked a milestone in international awareness of the plight of the world’s aboriginal and native peoples. The mandate of this newly created supranational body – to review developments pertaining to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and to give special attention to the evolution of standards concerning the rights of indigenous populations – attracted from year to year a growing attendance of indigenous organizations, principally from the Americas.[1]

What attracted activists to Geneva was the idea that the international setting offered new opportunities to address longstanding concerns. As in the case of environmental or women’s issues, the emerging framework of international institutions and conferences regarding the human rights situation of minorities, and especially discrimination against so-called “tribal peoples” and “indigenous populations”, opened up new political spaces for non-state actors to become involved in world politics (Keck, Sikking, 1). Using supranational institutions to exert pressure on national governments in order to achieve policy changes has become a fairly effective strategy in the last two or three decades for NGOs, including indigenous organizations.

Among the leading international lobby groups was the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), the first transnational pan-indigenous human rights organization with a global perspective and scope. Its founding conference took place from 27th to 31st of October 1975 at the Tseshaht Reservation in Port Alberni, British Columbia. After acquiring consultative NGO-Status within the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1977, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples was officially recognized as spokesperson for the world’s aboriginal populations and qualified to advocate for the rights of its constituency at United Nations institutions and conferences.

At these international events, the newly created organization found an important venue to express ideas about common indigenous interests and to represent the aspirations of its members. Analyzing these lobbying efforts will be the main aim of this article. After providing a brief synopsis of the formation process of the WCIP and its organization structure, I will evaluate its activities as an international pressure group for indigenous rights. Particular emphasis will be laid on the oral contributions and written statements given at the annual indigenous gatherings in Geneva during the sessions of the above-mentioned Working Group. In the 1980s and 1990s, the WGIP was the most significant example of pan-indigenous organization on a global scale and the broader purpose of this article is to reflect on concepts discussed in studies on transnational indigenous activism and the quality of the arguments employed by their representatives when dealing with governments and supranational institutions under the watching eye of the global public[2]

Creating a pan-indigenous organization

Although some indigenous social and political organizations can look back on a much longer history, the late 1960s witnessed a surprising coincidence in the consolidation of ethnic identity movements all along the Americas and the Pacific Region. From the Andean and Central American Highlands to the Amazonian Lowlands, from the plains of North America and Australian to urban settings, more and more aboriginal communities created political organizations on a local level and affiliated at the regional and national level. Groups like the National Indian Youth Council (USA), the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (Australia), the Shuar Federation (Ecuador) or the National Indian Brotherhood (Canada), to name but a few, focused on defending basic human rights, demanding respect for their native cultures and territories, and denouncing abuses against indigenous populations by state authorities and (trans)national companies, as well as pressures exerted by majority populations.[3]

The political leaders of these movements were increasingly not content with simply engaging with domestic political authorities and national governments, a strategy which all too often had proven to be ineffective. The rise of a more international strategy was favored and encouraged by a gradually changing international atmosphere. The situation of national minorities did not receive much international attention until the 1960s, when liberation and decolonization struggles in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean received worldwide coverage, and from the early 1970s onwards the United Nations began to show a timid interest in problems of discrimination against non-dominant population groups. Not only was apartheid legislation in South Africa seen as an obstacle to world peace and social development, but discrimination against minorities in general was a concern for the international community (Kymlicka). After finalizing a study on patterns of racial discrimination in 1969, which included a chapter on indigenous peoples, the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities commissioned in 1972 a special study on the situation of indigenous populations, carried out by the Ecuadorian Ambassador to the UN, Jose R. Martinez Cobo, who finished his work a decade later in 1982 (Santa Cruz). One of his major recommendations was the establishment of a permanent forum inside the United Nations human rights system to report regularly on discriminatory practices, allowing the participation of indigenous populations themselves (Cobo). [4]

Taking into consideration the changing attitude of supranational institutions, George Manuel, president of the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), an umbrella organization representing the Canadian Status and Treaty aboriginal groups, was among the first native leaders to recognize that indigenous rights should not only be negotiated with national governments but could also be pursued using the international human rights framework provided by the United Nations after the Second World War. As advisor to then Minister on Aboriginal Affairs, Jean Chrétien, on questions of First Nations policy, he had traveled to Australia, New Zealand and various Scandinavian countries in the early 1970s, where he established contacts with indigenous leaders from abroad. Persuaded by the striking similarities of historical and contemporary indigenous experiences all over the world and impressed by African struggles for self-determination, he thought about ways to articulate and frame a common indigenous worldview (Mc Farlene). Together with his colleague Michael Posluns, Manuel published an indigenous manifesto called “The Fourth World”, which advanced the idea that aboriginal peoples need to unify in order to advance recognition of their rights (Manuel, Posluns).

After two preparatory meetings in Georgetown (Guyana) and Copenhagen, the founding conference of the WCIP on Vancouver Island assembled 260 participants, including 52 delegates of indigenous organizations coming from all over the Americas, Scandinavia, Greenland, Australia and New Zealand. [5] Attempts had also been made to reach out to indigenous groups from the Soviet Union, while, as Sanders (1977, 6) points out, for organizational reasons the hosts refrained from extending invitations to Asian and African groups. As the undisputed leader of this formative international indigenism, Manuel was elected to be the first president of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, while another prominent North American indigenous activist, Philip S. Deloria, served as general secretary. These appointments reflected the early North American dominance of the organization.

The most urgent topics discussed at the founding conference of the WCIP were the need to create unity among indigenous peoples, to strengthen local and national organizations and to disseminate information about living conditions, cultural values and common problems (Massey: 49). The relationship between indigenous peoples and Western governments was tackled in the official declaration produced at the end of the conference. Chadwick Allen provides an interesting reading of this document as an auto-ethnographic counter discourse to the First World’s dominant master narrative. By creating an indigenous “we”, Allen points out, the WCIP’s narrative definition of global indigenous identity constructs a set of analogies that translate specific indigenous realities into a comprehensive and comprehensible generalization (Allen, 208). The “Solemn Declaration” the WCIP adopted in 1975 integrates diverse indigenous worldviews and experiences into a single narrative through juxtaposition with an ambiguous “other” which represents an amorphous Western culture. [6] At the center of what has been labeled “transnational indigeneity” lay the “consciousness of culture and peoplehood”. Allen argues that in so doing, the WCIP based the construction of identity on self-reflexive emblems of differentiation rather than objective criteria (Allen, 211).

This is an interesting point, because at this formative stage the WCIP was not totally opposed to the idea of “objective” criteria for the definition of the term “indigenous peoples”. In fact, at the second General Assembly in 1977 in Kiruna, Sweden, the participants adopted a much shorter definition, which stressed ancestral relationship to a certain territory and particular cultural traits, which make indigenous peoples distinct from other population groups and confer upon them a unique identity. [7] I will return to this normative question later.

Strengthening organization structures

The philosophical discussion regarding the question “who are we?” translated into two practical tasks for the newly founded organization: to decide about its membership base and about future working procedures. The delegates eventually opted for a pyramidal but also decentralized organizational structure. The main body was the General Assembly, which met approximately every three years in a different member-region. [8]The convention discussed general policies and decided upon the election of the Presidency, affiliations with other international organizations or agencies and the admission of new members. Besides that, the General Assembly had to approve the overall budget of the organization. The voting procedure was disputed. Finally it was decided that it was not suitable for the organization to go with the equation “one people – one vote”. Instead, the adopted procedure resembled the structure of the United Nations. While various indigenous organizations from the same country could become members of the World Council, when it came to decision processes they had to constitute so-called “country coalitions”. At the General Assembly, every country could dispatch three delegates of different ethnic origin but exercise only one vote. [9]

While the Assembly was responsible for envisioning general policies, the WCIP was governed by the Executive Council, comprised of the President, two Vice-Presidents and the representatives of the five regional branches (North-America, Central-America, South-America, Europe and the Pacific region). The Executive Council was expected to meet at least twice a year and decided on all matters concerning the functioning of the organization, based upon the Guidelines established by the General Assembly. The first permanent office was located at the University of Lethbridge, where Canadian activist Marie Marule Smallface was working at the Department of Native American Studies. In 1984, the WCIP’s headquarters was transferred to Ottawa, as it was easier to reach for the international board of directors and was closer to the Canadian-based institutions that played an important role in financing its activities. When possible, the secretariat employed three staff members – including the president – and was responsible for coordination efforts, administrative issues and project activities. The assistants received their orders from the president but were also involved in representation issues, attending conferences or workshops in the name of the organization.

The relationship between the headquarters in Canada and the national member organizations passed through the five regional branches, which remained politically autonomous and had to assure their own financial means. While the Nordic Sami Council, a well-organized body representing the rather homogeneous Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Sami population, was subsidized by the Scandinavian governments, the Indian Council of South America (CISA) had to battle with continuous conflicts over leadership and accusations of financial mismanagement (Dietschy, 61-65). The North American Regional Council had no practical relevance as the Inuit and indigenous peoples from the United States did not show a strong interest in collaborating with the World Council, not even sending a single delegate to the Second General Assembly (WCIP 1978).

The financial situation of the WCIP was always strained. Even though then-president Donald Rojas claimed in 1988 that the contributions received by member organizations were sufficient to support at least the work of the head office, there is no evidence that membership required the payment of any fees (Pogrom 139 3/88). In fact, the World Council received regular financial support only from Canadian and Scandinavian development agencies, and especially the CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). [10]The reliance on external funding by governments more or less sympathetic to the cause of indigenous peoples, church organizations, international agencies, Western support networks and private foundations called into question the status of the World Council as an independent, autonomous grassroots organization, especially because of its relationship to state-based sponsorship (Sanders 1977, 13).

Another problem, already alluded to by Sanders in his account of the founding process of the World Council, is related to North-South frictions. Even though the Port Alberni conference in 1975 established an ample consensus regarding common experiences, grievances and moral worldviews, it also became apparent that developmental differences between the various national societies in the Americas had an impact on indigenous peoples. Important divides emerged early on, above all between the North American delegates and Central and South American representatives regarding political priorities, tactics and attitudes towards national governments (Sanders 1977, 12; Massey, 48).

The bylaws of the WCIP tried to bridge these differences by stating that there should be two Vice-Presidents, one English-speaking and one Spanish-speaking. In the long run, however, the structure of the WCIP facilitated the shift towards dominance by Latin American organizations, resulting in the drop out or at least complaisant indifference of the North American instigators. After the initial phase when the most relevant positions were occupied by Canadian and US-American representatives, in the 1980s the leadership moved south, when Latin American activists Juan Carlos Morales (1980-1984), Carlos Rojas Maroto (1987-1993) and Jorge Conrado Valiente (1994-1997) assumed the presidency. It is striking that not a single WCIP-president represented a powerful national organization or came from a country where indigenous groups made up a substantial part of the overall population. Morales and Rojas are Costa Rican citizens, while Valiente is from Argentina. [11]

Advocating for pan-indigenous rights

As mentioned, the primary activity of the World Council was its attendance at different international conferences and workshops, using its ECOSOC-Status to introduce statements, proposals and resolutions to various human rights and development bodies. However, lobbying efforts were not limited to supranational institutions but also targeted national governments, international agencies, NGOs and public opinion. In some instances, local or national communities such as the Mapuche in Chile or endangered Amazonian tribes in Brazil reported directly to the WCIP-Secretariat regarding current government policies or encroachment by migrant settler populations. The World Council tried to use its international standing by sending formal protest notes to the Governments and also used its international network to disseminate information on the respective cases. However, due to financial constraints, the World Council was not able to maintain a regular information policy. Between 1982 and 1993 it published about 20 bilingual newsletters of uneven quality and coverage. These were sent to its member organizations and also to like-minded and supportive foreign NGOs, who sometimes incorporated information received by the WCIP into their own publications.

The WCIP co-sponsored several international conferences and meetings. In 1986, when the Working Group session in Geneva was cancelled due to the financial problems the United Nations was facing at that time, the World Council and the Anti-Slavery Society hosted an NGO-symposium to assure the continuity of the annual indigenous gatherings. During the 1990s, the World Council organized numerous regional workshops and seminars related to the preparation of indigenous delegations to specific United Nations conferences (Rio Earth Summit 1992, Vienna Human Rights Conference 1993, Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women 1995, Copenhagen World Summit for Social Development 1995). In so doing, the WCIP played a vital role in coordinating the activities of indigenous delegations at these conferences and pressing for the inclusion of indigenous issues into the respective agendas and reports.

Apart from its impact at the United Nations, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples was actively involved in two concrete international negotiation processes during the 1980s that drew considerable attention. When the International Labor Organization (ILO) introduced its plans to revise its 1953 Convention 107 concerning the “Protection and Integration of Indigenous and other Tribal and Semi-Tribal Populations in Independent Countries”, the World Council was among the few indigenous organizations invited to participate as an observer in the expert meeting which discussed the necessary changes. [12] Even though most indigenous organizations were not content either with the new Convention 169 or the deliberation process itself, which did not depart from the ILO’s standard three-party decision-making process, it has to be acknowledged that the presence of indigenous organizations like the World Council was instrumental in ensuring the revision process was concluded without delay in 1989 and that the Convention parted in substantial ways from earlier international standards, and not just symbolically with the substitution of the term “peoples” for “populations” in the title. [13]

The engagement of high representatives of the WCIP in the resolution of the armed conflict between the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the Miskito, Sumu and Rama Indians of the Atlantic Coast caused considerable controversy. For some, the World Council revealed itself to be a communist ally, while for others it was a pawn of the CIA. The latter accusations gained momentum after WCIP-President Clem Chartier entered the Central American country illegally to accompany rebel leader Brooklyn Rivera on a so-called fact finding mission and offered an international press conference later in Costa Rica. [14] Despite this embarrassment of the Nicaraguan government, acknowledgement of the WCIP’s efforts to find a peaceful solution, which led among other things to the Cease Fire Accord signed in Bogota (1984), came when the Sandinista government permitted the WCIP to organize an international seminar in 1988 on Treaty Rights and Autonomy in Managua, where the organization could claim some the responsibility for the region’s recently-declared autonomous status (WCIP 1988, 15-19).

After the conclusion of the ILO-revision process and the Nicaraguan pacification, the activities of the WCIP gained far less attention from the outside world. Mandated by its Fifth General Assembly in 1987 in Lima, the World Council expended significant efforts leading a coordinated hemispheric campaign against the 1992 celebrations of the Columbus Quincentenary. It furthermore tried to gain expertise in the emerging field of Biodiversity, especially in favor of defending indigenous intellectual property rights related to the Human Genome Project in the early 1990s. Yet in both instances the World Council was merely one indigenous stakeholder group among many. Its own activities regarding the 1992 protest were outshone by the massive gatherings the committee for “500 Years of Resistance” staged in Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, which attracted nearly all the international media attention.[15]

Targeting the United Nations

As already mentioned, the United Nations was the most important setting for the primary activity of the WCIP, the regular attendance of conferences, meetings and workshops, beginning with the 1977 NGO Conference on Discrimination against indigenous populations in the Americas. In this respect, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations is of key importance, as during the 1980s and 1990s this was the one global forum where indigenous activists and organizations could articulate their concerns on a regular basis. [16]As anthropologist Andrea Muehlebach points out:

As a site of particular discursive density where indigenous identities and cultures are generated and articulated during intense encounters between indigenous and non-indigenous individuals, groups, institutions, organizations, and state-representatives, the WGIP is a vital nodal point on the global »indigeno-scape».(Muehlebach, 415)

From 1982 until 1996 members of the Executive Council of the WCIP or of some of its regional branches attended every meeting of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations and regularly used this event to address the international indigenous public assembled in Geneva. The delegates of the World Council are part of the select group of “professional indigenists”, using the label coined by Rößler (104), with extensive knowledge of the United Nations context and the different actors assembled in these meetings. In general terms, their statements can be classified into four categories, taking into account the twofold mandate of the WGIP and its different purposes:

1. Statements on behalf of particular indigenous populations or organizations

While in their heyday around the turn of the millennium the yearly sessions of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations were attended by over 1000 participants, originally the possibilities for indigenous organizations to take part in deliberations were scant, mainly because of high travel costs and living expenses in Geneva. These difficulties, along with the more geographically circumscribed idea of who indigenous populations are and where they live, were the main reasons why the early conferences attracted mainly organizations from former British colonies and some Latin American countries who had already established good contacts with European support groups that could in some cases invite representatives to Geneva. [17]

Yet indigenous communities, which for financial reasons could not effort to attend the meetings in person or were not allowed by their governments to leave the country, authorized in some cases third parties to deliver a speech on their behalf. This was sometimes done by delegates from Western support groups like Survival International, IWGIA or the Anti-Slavery Society, and in other cases an international indigenous composite-body like the World Council of Indigenous Peoples carried out this role as mouthpiece to denounce discriminatory practices against a specific indigenous group. The WCIP made statements on behalf of the Pataxó Indians of Brazil in 1983, for one of its Central American members, the Toledo Maya Cultural Council of Belize, in 1985 and spoke for the National Democratic Front of Burma in 1988. These are quite extensive reports on the grievances of particular indigenous populations, containing detailed information on cases of discrimination, abuse and other injustices. By undertaking this task of delivering a speech in the name of a particular community, the World Council positioned itself as a kind of gateway between local indigenous groups and the global indigenous community.

Particularly interesting is the statement on behalf the National Democratic Front of Burma (NDF), itself an umbrella organization representing different ethnic minority groups in Burma and a member of the Pacific-Asia Regional Council of the WCIP. [18]Alongside the neighboring South-East Asian governments, the Burmese regime was one of the most outspoken critics of applying the concept of indigeneity to South-East Asia, arguing that Burma/Myanmar is a multi-ethnic society in which all population groups were victims of British colonization. [19] While most historical accounts of the political conflict that emerged in Burma soon after independence in 1948 attribute it to partisan reasons, interwoven with the hemispheric geostrategic context, the NDF highlights the ethnic dimension of the struggle. Throughout the documents the dichotomy between “indigenous minorities/leaders/areas” and the Burmese government is stressed. The government is depicted as representing only the interests of the ethnic majority of Burmese people while persecuting all minority groups. Compared to other statements written and supported by the WCIP, the criticism of these Government practices is very severe, denouncing particular cases of atrocities, general policies of genocide and forced assimilation that resulted in ethnocide.

2. General statements on the development of the situation of indigenous peoples

When compared to statements by more inexperienced indigenous organizations, the language the World Council used when reviewing general developments was less polarizing and accusatory against national and international policies. Many indigenous “newcomers” to the Working Group sessions came to Geneva with the idea that by reporting on the concrete abuses they suffered from hostile governments, other population groups, or (trans)national corporations eager to usurp their natural resources, they would find some immediate and concrete support or maybe even be able to invoke some form of international sanction against their offenders. The reality was often deflating and created frustration. After talking for maybe a minute, they were stopped by the commanding voice of chairperson-rapporteur Erica-Irena M. Daes, who reminded all participants that the Working Group is not “a chamber of complaints” and that the forum could not hear, investigate or even resolve individual grievances. [20] She then remitted the slightly embarrassed speaker to other United Nations Human Rights bodies, for example the Committee for the Elimination of all Forms of Racism (CERD), where concrete disputes could be addressed. [21]

When the World Council took the floor to deliver its own statements under the agenda item “review of developments”, it tried to do so in more general terms so that all assembled indigenous delegates could feel included. Its own contributions were intended to facilitate dialogue with Governments, not confrontation. The WCIP-speaker generally began by acknowledging some advances, especially with respect to normative questions, like constitutional reforms at the national level, or international developments such as the ILO revision of Convention 107. After these conciliatory remarks, speeches then went on to stress persistent overall patterns of discrimination and abuse. What is important in these statements is that they are framed to confirm the standing of the WCIP as a global umbrella organization, managing detailed information on assaults against indigenous inhabitants in places as diverse as the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh or the Amazonian rainforest, conflicts regarding hydroelectric power projects in Canada and Mesoamerica, or land conflicts in Australia and Scandinavia. [22] In so doing, the World Council demonstrated both knowledge of particular situations in its member-regions and also an ability to stress the similarities between indigenous experiences worldwide.

3. Substantial statements on normative concepts

If dealing with questions regarding the current situations of indigenous populations in UN member-states has been one prerogative of Working Group on Indigenous Populations meetings, then preparation of international normative standards regarding indigenous rights is the other. Here, again, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples participated actively in these debates. In 1984, at its fourth General Assembly in Panama, the organization adopted a “Declaration of Principles”. The 19 articles emphasized the idea of self-determination, the capacity to form separate political or judicial institutions and also substantial land rights. [23]Furthermore the Declaration addressed some specific and maybe less pressing problems for indigenous communities, such as control over archaeological sites and artifacts, required consultation in cases of scientific research and freedom to travel without disturbances across international borders which divide the territory of native communities. When the World Council introduced its Principles to the Working Group, it did so with the idea that they could constitute a possible roadmap for the proposed United Nations declaration on indigenous rights.

Even before the Working Group engaged in the discussion of specific rights, it had to deal with the question of who would be able to benefit from such provisions. Several state observers demanded that before talking about rights, there has to be an agreed objective definition of indigenous populations. The WCIP stated its opposition to any formal definition imposed by governments; notwithstanding, the organization issued a statement in which it outlined the following three common characteristics of indigenous “peoples”:

a) Having a special relationship with the earth

b) A common colonial history of oppression and appropriation of traditional territories

c) The goal of achieving and maintaining self-determination

What the WCIP describes in this statement as an “indigenous ideology” does not relate to any political affiliation. In the global context of confrontation between East and West, communism and capitalism, the organization professes independence and argues against any alliance with political factions who would only use indigenous peoples for their advantage without being really interested in their plight. [24]

At the center of indigenous ideology is what the World Council calls the “special relationship with the earth.” In another speech given at the same session in 1985, the WCIP reverts to this topic. Referring to “earth” instead of “land” or “territory” does indicate that at stake is not only access to resources and physical survival but a metaphysical element of identity and natural environment:

We mean by Earth the mountains, the plains and the valleys, the desert and the jungles, the oceans, lakes, rivers and streams, the minerals, the gas, the steam however deep they may be found, the glaciers, the ice, the snow and the rain, the air space where the highest birds fly to the surface of the lands and waters, and all the plants and animals, the fishes and birds wherever they are found. [25]

What unites indigenous peoples worldwide is not only this common understanding of what the natural environment means to them but also how experiences of harassment and confinement have disrupted their relationship with the environment. Therefore, the second part of the statement briefly describes ways in which the right of indigenous peoples to the earth has been infringed by “others” through acts of murder, transmigration programs, pollution, imposition of borders or restrictions on gathering practices. By naming places and specific instances where these actions happen, the statement again links conditions in different world regions and creates a transnational community which not only shares a common ideology but also a common destiny.

What might differentiate this statement from other philosophical accounts of indigeneity is that it does not stop at this point. It closes by enumerating some related articles from the Declaration of Principles. These are specifically meant to safeguard the territorial rights of indigenous communities, including declaring traditional indigenous territories to be inalienable and demanding restitution of already dispossessed lands. In this way, the World Council not only addressed the problem but also demonstrated potential solutions.

4. Statements on special items of the agenda

From 1985 onwards, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations decided to devote some of its discussion to a specific topic, relating general themes to current developments. One year, the speakers reflected on indigenous experiences regarding self-government; another year, they stressed disputes over land and the control of natural resources. With the introduction of this scheme, discussions became more stringent and the depicted situations easier to compare and summarize.

The World Council of Indigenous Peoples made some substantial contributions to indigenous education and indigenous health. Regarding the second topic, the WCIP added expertise to the discussion because of its involvement in other international agencies, as members of its executive board participated in the early 1990s in meetings of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) where they campaigned for a revaluation of “traditional medicine” and health knowledge, known as “GIFTS of Health”. In this case, the World Council used its consultative NGO-status to file a formal response to the Working Group secretariat regarding the health issue before the start of the session. The statement then received an official United Nations document-number and was distributed to participants of the meeting. In so doing, the World Council was not restricted to the five minutes allotted every speaker and could also reach participants who were not present for the shortened presentation.

The statement in itself is a fine example of indigenous petitions at international level. First, it summarizes briefly the main conclusions and recommendations of the Global Initiatives for Traditional Systems of Health, in which the WCIP participated. Then, in a rather typical way, it combines the claim for protection of biodiversity and the cultural and intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples with a philosophical request for the recognition of difference and an indigenous belief that health is more than just the absence of illness but “entails a balanced, harmonious and just relationship between peoples of different cultures, with due regard to diversity.” [26] This paper, which was the last written statement the WCIP issued at the United Nations before it ceased to operate, calls at the same time for the right to equal treatment, for justice and the right to preserve the different outlook on life of indigenous peoples.


All in all, in can be argued that the World Council of Indigenous Peoples played a leading role in the early years of indigenous political mobilization at the international level and that the organization was a key-player in the articulation of pan-indigenous identity. The WCIP provided a solid international network for remote aboriginal communities at a time when access to the United Nations and especially the Working Group on Indigenous Populations remained constricted and communication technologies did not yet allow grassroots organizations to build relationships between each other and international agencies. These direct contacts only got consistently underway from the 1990s onwards.

The World Council of Indigenous Peoples reached its greatest significance in the second half of the 1980s. Local indigenous communities trusted the organization to raise its voice on their behalf inside the United Nations to denounce abuses and express misgivings. Furthermore, WCIP-speakers made substantial contributions to the idea of a declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples. Outside the UN, the WCIP was involved in trying to mediate between the Sandinista government and rebellious ethnic minorities in Nicaragua and was also chosen by the International Labour Organization to represent indigenous populations in the revision process of its Convention 107. During these years, the World Council was recognized as a true global player, useful both as a mediator in conflicts between indigenous populations and national governments and as an important participant in the advancement of international normative rules.

It seems that the inherent contradictions or structural problems of the WCIP, mentioned as early as 1977 by Sanders, along with the ascendancy of other global indigenous platforms and communication facilities, were responsible for the declining significance of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. For several reasons, the organization not only never expanded beyond successor states of European colonial powers in the Americas, Scandinavia and the Pacific region but also could not incorporate some of the major national indigenous political organizations of these regions into its transnational project. At the same time, the global indigenous movement, in the way it presented itself in Geneva and at the United Nations World Conferences, witnessed the growing influx of delegates from Asia, Africa and the former Soviet Union. In this regard, the structure of the World Council with its triennial meetings of the General Assembly proved to be too slow and insufficient for the fast growing global indigenous movement. The indigenous caucus in Geneva, which met every year before and during the Working Group sessions, absorbed one of the major tasks of the WCIP: to disseminate information on the situation of aboriginal and native populations around the globe and to reach for a universal understanding of the similar problems and possible solutions for peoples who auto-identify as being indigenous.

Taking these developments into consideration, it seems that by the mid-1990s a self-declared global representation of indigenous peoples was no longer necessary to discuss indigenous issues on a worldwide stage. Even in Geneva at the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, the World Council ceased to be a major spokesperson on indigenous issues. Seen from a pessimistic, critical point of view, George Manuel’s idea of a unified indigenous voice in world politics had failed. Seen from a more optimistic or pragmatic point of view, the WCIP simply became obsolete because other channels and political instruments performed its tasks. In any event, the eighth General Assembly due to take place in 1997 in Argentina was cancelled and the organization, though it had never been formally dissolved, effectively ceased to exist. [27]


[1] See Report of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations on its first session. Chairman-Rapporteur Mr. Asbjörn Eide: E/CN.4/Sub.2/1982/33. back to text

[2] Since the early 1990s, the phenomenon of transnational indigenous activism has been studied in the fields of Anthropology, Native Studies, Sociology, Law and History. Some of the best book-length discussions are: Robert Andolina, Nina Laurie and Sarah A. Radcliffe. Indigenous development in the Andes: culture, power, and transnationalism, Durham:Duke University Press 2009; Alison Brysk. From Tribal Village to Global Village. Indian Rights and International Relations in Latin America. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000; Ravi da Costa: A Higher Authority. Indigenous Transnationalism and Australia: Sydney 2006; Thomas D. Hall and James V. Fenelon. Indigenous peoples and globalization: resistance and revitalization. Boulder – London: Paradigm Publishers, 2009;Ronald Niezen. Origins of Indigenism. Human Rights and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley [u.a.]: University of California Press, 2003; Franke Wilmer. The Indigenous Voice in World Politics. Since Time Immemorial. Newbury Park: Sage Publ., 1993. back to text

[3] The conditions for the emergence of the contemporary indigenous movements in Latin America are discussed in: José Bengoa. La emergencia indígena en América Latina. México [u.a.]: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2007. back to text

[4]For a brief inside perspective of the insertion of indigenous peoples in the UN see Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz: “How Indigenous Peoples Wound Up at the United Nations.” The hidden 1970s: histories of radicalism, Ed. Dan Berger. New Brunswick: 2010: 115-134. back to text

[5] Some of the invited Latin American delegations could not attend because the military governments of Brazil and Chile did not issue the necessary exit visas. Other delegates faced repression after returning to their countries. See Akwesasne Notes, Early Winter 1975; Sanders, p.12. back to text

[6] See: http://www.indigenouspeople.net/declare.htm [access: 17-10-2011] back to text

[7] The text reads: „Indigenous peoples are such population groups as we are, who from age-old time have inhabited the lands where we live, who are aware of having a character of our own, with social traditions and means of expression that are linked to the country inherited from our ancestors, with a language of our own, and having certain essential and unique characteristics which confer upon us the strong conviction of belonging to a people, who have an identity in ourselves and should thus be regarded by others.” back to text

[8]Including the founding conference in Canada, the World Council hosted a total of seven General Assemblies. The others were held 1977 in Kiruna (Sweden), 1981 in Canberra (Australia), 1984 in Panama City, 1987 in Lima (Peru), 1990 in Tromsø (Norway) and 1994 in Quetzaltenango (Guatemala). back to text

[9] The organization accepted the membership of different indigenous peoples from one country, but obliged them to nominate a joint representative with voting rights in the General Assembly. The legal counsel of the WCIP, Douglas Sanders, mentions an alternative approach that would have involved giving every member-organization a vote, but dismisses this idea because it could have resulted in an unlimited growth of membership and severe logistical and financial problems for the parent body. See Douglas Sanders: Discussion Paper on Membership and Representation within the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, 1982. back to text

[10] The organization negotiated annually the bulk of its budget with Canada’s CIDA. The allotments ranged between 200.000 and 400.000 C$, approximately 90% of its total income. See Library and Archives Canada: File World Council of Indigenous Peoples, Container 30-31. back to text

[11] The only other North American President of the WCIP after the resignation of George Manuel due to his health problems was Clem Chartier (1984-1987), a Metis Canadian lawyer and activist. back to text

[12] For the ILO revision process of Convention 169 see Lee Swepston. “The Adoption of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169).“ Law and Anthropology 5, 1990, p. 221-35; Luis Rodríguez-Piñero: Indigenous peoples, postcolonialism and international law. The ILO regime (1919-1989), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. back to text

[13] ILO Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. See http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/cgi-lex/convde.pl?C169 [access: 17-10-2011] back to text

[14]The decision to accompany Rivera was not agreed with the other Executive Council members. Fearing for the independence of the WCIP to mediate the conflict, Chartier was finally removed from his office as president by his colleagues in the Council and substituted by Donald Rojas. back to text

[15] The World Council was involved in the preparation of a related 1992 event set off by UNESCO. After more than one postponement, the conference was finally cancelled in 1994. back to text

[16] For a summary of the mandate, working methods and results of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, including an appraisal by one of the most active indigenous experts, Mick Dodson from Australia, see Pritchard, Sarah (Ed.). Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations and Human Rights. London: Zed Books, 1998: 40-66. back to text

[17] At the first meeting in 1982, around 30 indigenous organisations participated. In 1999, the number rose to 172 delegations. See Muehlebach: 420. The diversification of the attendance at the WGIP was a consequence of the establishment of the Voluntary Fund, which was equipped by donations from governments and some prosperous indigenous organizations and assumed the travel expenses for dozens of delegates. back to text

[18] UN WGIP, sixth session, August 1-5, 1988. Statement by Hayden F. Burgess, Pacific-Asia Council of Indigenous Peoples on behalf of the National Democratic Front of Burma (N.D.F.). The idea to expand the WCIP membership into Asia was very much attached to Hawaiian lawyer Hayden Burgess, who was vice-president of the organization between 1985 and 1990. In 1987 he invited several indigenous leaders from Asia to a meeting in Hawai’i where the assembled renamed the former Pacific branch of the WCIP the Asia-Pacific Council. Apparently, after he left the organization, contacts with Asian indigenous organizations once again fell into oblivion. See: “The World Council of Indigenous Peoples: An Interview with Poka Laenui (Hayden Burgess). The Contemporary Pacific 2 (1990)::336-348. back to text

[19] Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Sixth Session (1988). Statement by U Mya Than, observer delegation of Myanmar. back to text

[20] See Ms. Daes’ own account of her long-time service as Chairwomen of the WGIP. Erica-Irene A. Daes. Indigenous peoples: Keepers of our past, custodians of our future, Copenhagen: IWGIA 2008. back to text

[21] Shelagh Levangie discusses different strategies adopted by indigenous delegates attending the inter-sessional Working Group on the Draft Declaration in 2002. Shelagh Lavangie. Globalized Native Politics. Negotiating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, VDM Verlag Dr. Müller Saarbrücken 2008: 34ff. back to text

[22] Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Ninth Session (1991). World Council of Indigenous Peoples: Presentation on Review of Developments, delivered by Mr. Aslak Nils Sara. back to text

[23] http://www.nativevillage.org/Messages%20from%20the%20People/world_council_of_indigenous_peop.htm [access: 17-10-2011] back to text

[24]Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Fourth Session (1985).World Council of Indigenous Peoples on the subject of definition of indigenous peoples. back to text

[25] Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Fourth Session (1985). World Council of Indigenous Peoples on the subject of Right of Indigenous Peoples to the Earth. back to text

[26] Working Group on Indigenous Populations, 14th Session (1996). Review of developments: Health and Indigenous Peoples. Information received from indigenous peoples and NGOs: World Council of Indigenous Peoples. E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC.4/1996/3/Add.5. back to text

[27]Apparently there have been attempts to reinitiate the organization, again with a strong Latin-American accent. But for the moment it is not certain if the World Council of Indigenous Peoples has a future in the changing world of international indigenous politics. See La Jornada (Mexico), 30-11-2007: “Elijen a mexicano al frente del Consejo Mundial de Pueblos Indígenas”. back to text

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