The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 after more than 25 years of consultations, working groups, meetings, and organizing. It has been adopted by 144 countries and was endorsed by the United States in 2010 after it initially voted against the declaration.
The 46 articles of the declaration marked the first time that Indigenous peoples’ collective and individual rights were legally recognized – including the right to practice their language, develop their economies, practice their spiritual beliefs, and strengthen their cultural and political institutions.
Over the course of the drafting process, many notable Kānaka Maoli lawyers, scholars and activists participated, including current OHA Trustee Mililani Trask and former OHA Trustee Poka Laenui.
Laenui became involved in the process in 1983, and was elected as English Speaking Vice President of World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) and subsequently as the political spokesperson. Having been elected as OHA trustee the previous year, in 1982, Laenui explained his involvement saying that “the pathway for me to get there was a result of my search for an international body which could examine the decolonization of Hawaiʻi, looking at this matter from an international legal rather than an American colonial process.”
According to Laenui, the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples and its resulting declaration must be understood as a process and as a product.
“It became an opportunity for exposure, especially of Indigenous peoples, their histories, cultures, and conditions to the world. The UN declaration is the product which stands as a minimum standard of what the rights should be of the world’s Indigenous peoples,” Laenui said.
“While it is not binding on nations, it stands as a statement of such rights to which Indigenous and colonial governments can look to as a fundamental standard.”
Lance Collins, Maui attorney and legal scholar, explained that the four main principles of UNDRIP are self-determination, consultation and participation in decision-making, respect and protection of culture, and equality/non-discrimination.
“Regardless of whether Kānaka Maoli understand themselves as Indigenous people or as a civilian population of an occupied territory, or both, for those who are involved in legal struggles, UNDRIP provides important ways of thinking about the legal duties of the settler colonial state or occupying power toward Kānaka Maoli,” Collins said.
“Most Indigenous peoples assert claims to lands, self-determination, etc., without regard to the legal significance of a previously internationally recognized nation-state, as Kānaka Maoli can, and do, with respect to the Kingdom.”
Looking at issues such as protecting iwi kūpuna, water, and land rights, Collins notes that, “Article 26 of UNDRIP further supports both a state constitutional framework for Kānaka Maoli control of land and use and protection of water resources [and] reaffirms the obligations of an occupying power under international humanitarian law.”