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The Indigenous Rights Movement in the Pacific

1998 Marks the Centennial of the U.S. Colonial Expansion
in the Pacific and Caribbean

Kekuni Blaisdell,
Honolulu, Ka Pae'aina Hawai'i

In September 1997, delegates from 18 Pacific Island peoples and nations established an Indigenous Rights Working Group (IRWG) under the regional NGO umbrella organization Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organizations (PIANGO) at a forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. In this article, the IRWG convenor introduces IRWG, summarizes the Pacific indigenous rights movement, reports on recent regional meetings and looks to the future.

Indigenous rights as perceived by ourselves are especially critical to our Pacific Island peoples and nations as we approach the 21st century, called by some The Pacific Century. Political, nuclear, military, economic and environmental violations of our Pacific peoples' indigenous rights by superpowers as well as by our own governments and transnational corporations are mounting. Controversy continues over the United Nations (UN) Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DDRIP). The United States (U.S.) and other dominant powers threaten to shut down the UN Decolonization Committee. Agonizing struggles of our Pacific Island colonized peoples for freedom, our cultural identities, sacred environments and natural resources remain unresolved.

The Pacific Indigenous Rights Working Group

Against this background, the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organizations (PIANGO) was founded in 1990 in Pago Pago, Samoa, to facilitate communication, provide a common voice at regional and international forums and to develop Pacific identities, unity, cultures and action to improve the well being of our island communities. In 1995, at the 2nd PIANGO Council meeting of delegates from 24 Pacific nations in Moorea, Te Ao Maohi (French Polynesia), four working groups were created to facilitate regional action on issues of highest priority: indigenous rights, social and economic development, environmental protection and NGO capacity building.

On September 19-23, 1997, PIANGO joined the older and prominent NGO, Pacific Concerns Resource Center (PCRC)/Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP), in the 3rd NGO Parallel Forum as South Pacific Forum (SPF) government leaders were adjourning their annual meetings in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. At this gathering, the PIANGO Indigenous Rights Working Group (IRWG) was constituted. Current IRWG members are: Ka Pae'aina Hawai'i, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia, Rapanui and Te Ao Maohi (French Polynesia)/

IRWG coordinates collective efforts by PIANGO members and works with other Pacific NGOs, such as PCRC/NFIP, to:

  • Inform, educate and enhance awareness of indigenous people's rights, especially Pacific indigenous people's rights, violations of these rights; and the relationship of our Pacific indigenous people's rights issues to the global struggle of indigenous people against oppression and exploitation.
  • Establish indigenous rights standards unique to our Pacific region on our peoples' spiritual, genealogical and cultural laws, as distinguished from the UN Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples created by the UN nation states and based on Western law.
  • Foster and help develop mechanisms for monitoring, reporting and redressing violations of indigenous rights at local, regional and international levels. These mechanisms include supporting struggles and/or campaigns of Pacific island indigenous peoples and nations for self-determination, peaceful decolonization and independence

IRWG's current priority activities include:

  • support for Kanak, Maohi, Maori, Kanaka Maoli, East Timorese, West Papuan, Bougainvillean and Australian Aboriginal self-determination and resistance to colonialism.
  • Drafting a Pacific Region Charter of Indigenous Rights with unifying principles and standards unique to our Pacific region, identities and ways based on our spiritual and cultural traditions.

Origins and Highlights of the Modern Pacific Indigenous Rights Movement

The modern era in the Pacific indigenous rights movement may be considered to have begun after World War II in 1946 with two major events.

The first was the recognition of the right to self-determination for colonized peoples in the newly drafted UN Charter under Chapter XI, Article 73. A list of 72 Non-self-governing Territories eligible for decolonization and a process for decolonization were created.

The second major event in 1946 was the onset of a 50-year era of Pacific nuclear testing led by the U.S. in the Marshall Islands, followed by the United Kingdom (U.K.) in 1952 and France in 1966, heightening Cold War tension. Because of crescendoing protests, the U.S. in 1962 concluded its Pacific nuclear testing with missile megaton explosions over Kirimati (Christmas Island) and Kalama (Johnston Atoll). The cost was immeasurable human suffering and radiation injury extending to succeeding generations, the disappearance of three Pacific atolls and other extensive environmental degradation and the lasting bitterness of Pacific islanders. Yet, in 1959, the U.S. military established a Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) in the Marshall Islands as the impact site for nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Moreover, in 966, France conducted the first of 193 Pacific nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls southeast of Tahiti which ended only after another clamor of world-wide protests 30 years later in 1996.

Thus, the Pacific indigenous rights movement was a response to the West's persistent colonial domination in violation of the UN Charter's call for decolonization at that time and the West's Cold War pretext for use of the Pacific islands for devastating nuclear testing.

However, the Pacific indigenous movement in the earlier years was feeble, sporadic, not regionally organized and received scant public media attention. Even the terms "indigenous" and "indigenous rights" were yet to gain common usage.

Persistent nuclear detonations by the U.S. and France in 1975 spurred the first Nuclear-Free Pacific Conference held in Suva, Fiji, sponsored by a Pacific-wide network of anti-nuclear groups. A Pacific People's Action Front (PPAF) was organized. This alliance of indigenous activists and Western liberals was a major factor in shaping awareness and compelling Pacific governments to take stronger anti-nuclear and anti-colonial stands.

Ensuing nuclear free conferences in Pohnpei in 1978, in 1980 at Kailua. Ka Pae'aina Hawai'i and in 1983 at Port Villa, Vanuatu, produced a People's Treaty which subsequently became a People's Charter for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP). The charter declared:

"We, the people of the Pacific have been victimized too long by foreign powers. The Western imperialistic and colonial powers invaded our defenceless region, they took over our lands and subjugated our people to their whims. This form of alien colonial, political and military domination unfortunately persists as an evil cancer in some of our native territories such as Tahiti-Polynesia, New Caledonia, Australia, and New Zealand. Our environment continues to be despoiled by foreign powers developing nuclear weapons for a strategy of warfare that has no winners, no liberators and imperils the survival of all humankind.

We ... will assert ourselves and wrest control over the destiny of our nations and our environment from foreign powers, including transnational corporations. We note in particular the recent racist roots of the world's nuclear powers and we call for an immediate end to the oppression, exploitation and subordination of the indigenous people of the Pacific."

NFIP concluded that a nuclear-free Pacific could be attained only by independence fro colonial imperialism.

The 1983 NFIP Conference in Vanuatu proclaimed a united front against Japan nuclear waste dumping, French nuclear testing and U.S. Pacific Rim military exercises. NFIP announced support for Kanaky (New Caledonia) and Tahiti Nui (French Polynesia) independence from France, and issued the Port Villa Declaration for an Oppression-Free Pacific.

In the same year in Geneva, the UN Cobo Report concluded that discrimination against indigenous peoples was due to their lack of self-determination, that imposed assimilation was a form of discrimination, and that the right of indigenous peoples to cultural distinctiveness, political self-determination and secure land resources should be formally declared by the UN. The result was the creation of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) in 1982 and the UNWGIP's work on a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DDRIP) completed after 12 years in 1994.

Other notable Pacific indigenous rights advances were:

  • the decolonization of 16 Pacific island nations over 36 from 1950 to 1986: Indonesia (1950), Western Samoa (1962), Nauru (1968), Fiji (1970), Tonga (1970), Niue (1974), Cook Islands (1975), Papua New Guinea (1975), Solomon Islands (1978), Tuvalu (1978), Kiribati (1979), Marshall Islands (1979), Federated states of Micronesia (1979), New Hebrides (1980), Belau (1981) and Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (1986);
  • the 1985 south Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty signed by nine South Pacific Forum national leaders in Rarotonga, and ;
  • later by USSR and China but not the U.S., U.K. and France;
  • the 1988 Matignon Accords by France in Kanaky (New Caledonia) for political amnesty and limited self-rule until a referendum on self-determination in 1998;
  • the 1992 Australian High Court recognition of the traditional land rights of Aborigines in the Mabo Case;
  • the 1993 U.S. apology to the Kanaka Maoli people for the 1893 U.S. armed invasion of Ka Pae'aina Hawai'i and overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom;
  • the 1993 Ka Ho'okolokolonui Kanaka Maoli (People's International Tribunal Hawai'i);
  • the 1993 First International Conference on the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Aotearoa (New Zealand) producing the Mataatua Declaration which led to the 1995 Treaty for a Life-forms Patent-Free Pacific;
  • the 1996 Nobel Peace Award to Jose Ramos Horta and Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo for their non-violence movement to end the 21-year war of East Timorese independence against the invading Indonesian military;
  • and, finally the January 1998 permanent cease-fire agreement on Bougainville after 8 years of war with withdrawal of the Papua New Guinea military and a free election for a Bougainville Reconciliation Government.

Recent Pacific Regional Indigenous Meeting

September 2-6, 1996, a Pacific Workshop on the Draft Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples (DDRIP) was hosted by the Fiji government in Suva. While the purpose of the Workshop was "to explore the meaning of the DDRIP for the indigenous peoples of the Pacific and to formulate a Pacific position," no unified position nor Pacific position emerged.

The Workshop Indigenous Caucus requested that the Fiji government elicit support from the South Pacific forum to urge UN member nation states to adopt the DDRIP without amendments. However, the Workshop also adopted a resolution for decolonization as a right of indigenous peoples as for all peoples. In addition, Workshop participants were divided in their public support of Te Ao Maohi's (French Polynesia's) appeal for independence from France.

Initially, the September 1997 NFIP/PCRC-PIANGO Forum in Rarotonga was to occur at the same time as the September 17-19 south Pacific Forum (SPF) annual meeting of government heads of the 16 Pacific Island nations and 10 dialog partners. It was hoped that PIANGO-PRC/NFIP participants would have informal as well as formal access to SPF leaders and other high-ranking SPF government officials.

However, apparently because some SPF leaders and dialog partners did not want to be confronted with protests such as from French-colonized Kanaks, Maohi or Australian Aboriginals, the Cook Islands SPF host ruled that the PIANGO-PCRC/NFIP Forum follow the September 17-19 SPF meeting. Nevertheless, on September 18, Tahitian leader Oscar Temaru publicly appealed for SPF support for Te Ao Maohi independence outside the SPF meeting place.

The 28th South Pacific Forum of Pacific heads of governments was attended by top officials of the 16 members governments: Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The 10 dialogue partners also represented Canada, China, European Union, France, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, U.K. and U.S.

The September 22, 1997, PIANGO/PCRC Forum Communique criticized the SPF for not addressing the right to self-determination and independence for colonized peoples. Citing specifically the peoples of East Timor, West Papua, Te Ao Maohi (French Polynesia), Bougainville, Kanaka Maoli of Ka Pae'aina (Hawai'i), Kanak of Kanaky (New Caledonia), Aotearoa, Aboriginal Australia, Wallis and Futuna, Rapanui, South Moluccas as being colonized by foreign powers, the Communique reaffirmed support for their right of self-determination, more action by the governments of the South pacific Forum and the Forum Secretariat for the complete decolonization of the Pacific, and for extension of the UN Decolonization Committee beyond the year 2000.

The 3rd NGO Parallel Forum also endorsed the September 23, 1997, resolution from the Indigenous Peoples' Workshop in Suva, Fiji, on Decolonization for Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific. The NGO Forum opposed the Australian government's plans for the theft of Aboriginal lands under the Wik 10-point plan for extinguishment of native title.

The NGO's pressed for an end to the transshipment, storage and dumping of nuclear wastes in the pacific, the clean up and ongoing monitoring of contaminated sites and support for test site workers affected by nuclear testing especially in Te Ao Maohi, Christmas Island and the Marshall Islands. The NGO Forum supported initiatives for a Nuclear Weapons Convention by SPF governments for introduction to the UN. It opposed extension of permits for Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) stating "Our air and waters are sacred. We are not the dump site for the world."

The NGO Forum favored economic growth and privatization only as they build community and equity and address all aspects of life-land, culture, values, environment and social well being.

The Future: 1998 and Beyond

1998 marks the centennial of the U.S. colonial expansion in the Pacific and Caribbean. In 1898, after provocation of war with Spain, the U.S. seized the Philippines, Guam, Wake (Enenkio), Eastern Samoa and forced annexation of Ka Pae'aina Hawai'i. In the Caribbean, the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico and Cuba and in the Treaty of Paris took these island nations and the Philippines as colonies for the new U.S. Empire.

The world needs to be reminded of these past wrongs a century ago and their relationship to World War II and its aftermath, the Cold War, nuclearism and continuing militarism in the Pacific. The New World Order of economic globalization is not only based in the dominant nations of Western Europe and north America, but also in a growing number of Asian countries. This neocolonialism is directed at our 300 million surviving indigenous peoples with plundering of our natural resources to sustain the hegemony of corporate transnationalism. In the Pacific, pitted against this mammoth of insatiable capitalistic greed and materialism are we, the indigenous islanders who are determined to survive by invoking our own traditions of spirituality, cultural identities and unity with our sacred environments.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 25, 1998

Kekuni Blaisdell is convenor of the Pro-Hawaiian Sovereignty Working Group and coordinator of Ka Pakaukau, a group of twelve organizations seeking independence.

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