Indigenous people may have long, enduring roots, histories and cultures based on the land, but they have faced a constant battle to protect their communities.
Professor Colin Samson has been documenting the lives of indigenous people for 25 years and is a vocal opponent of the erosion of the land rights of these communities. Here, he argues that struggles over land and corporate and governmental colonialism are what unites indigenous communities around the world and although formal colonialism has ended, the attitudes that underpinned it have not gone away.
A few years ago, the American human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson remarked that ‘slavery didn’t end, it just evolved’.
Could we say the same for colonialism? If colonialism just evolved, it is in the realm of human rights where we can see it. For 25 years I have researched and worked with indigenous groups across a number of environments and cultures. This includes participating in traditional ways of life with the Innu of northern Labrador, attending meetings between them and the Canadian government, and authoring a human rights report (.pdf) and book on their efforts to maintain their culture.
As a volunteer at the Oceti Sakowin camp in 2016, I also personally observed the conflict at Standing Rock over the building of an oil pipeline on lands guaranteed to the Sioux by treaty. Many conversations and observations sensitized me to the ongoing nature of colonialism and the incredible struggles to maintain ecologically sensitive lands and unique ways of life.
In my latest book, I use the insights gained from this research to illuminate how human rights, the international standards designed to protect peoples and cultures, are compromised because policies initiated under colonialism to prevent the realisation of such rights have endured.
In 2018 activists, journalists and private individuals exposed the Home Office targeting people who had arrived as British subjects following the Windrush migration from former British slave plantation colonies in the Caribbean. Accused as illegal immigrants, they had accompanied their parents who were recruited to work in Britain’s public services after the ravages of World War Two. Many of these now elderly people were, after successive immigration acts, denied rights to employment and healthcare after paying taxes during decades of service to the UK. Key evidence of their legitimate status such as the original landing slips were destroyed by the Home Office in 2010.
Many victims of the Windrush scandal did not receive the promised government apologies and several have died since it erupted. It has been no mitigation of the scandal that the Home Office offered to pay for the funeral of one uncompensated victim of the policy in 2019.
Another episode of contemporary colonialism involves people from Britain’s Indian Ocean islands. Their human rights also remain unrealised.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Britain had violated the human rights of 1,500 residents of the Chagos islands, who it forcibly and brutally relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles between 1968 and 1972 to lease out their lands to the US military. On the same day as the ICJ ruling, UK Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon announced that the UK would be seeking re-election to the UN Human Rights Council in view of among other things a ‘rising tide of impunity around the world’. No reference was made to the ICJ ruling, and no apology to the Chagossians for what they continue to suffer has been forthcoming. Indeed, the British government ignored the demand to end its colonial control over the islands as soon as possible, and when the UN General Assembly voted by a margin of 116-6 on a resolution for Britain to surrender the Chagos archipelago to Mauritius so that the Chagossians could return to their lands, the Foreign Office could only register its disappointment and underline that the US base on the Chagos islands keeps the world safe from terrorism.
The government has ignored these determinations. Thus far, the UK has only committed to a $50 million support package and ‘heritage visits’ which allow Chagossians to spend time on what it denotes as ‘the Territory’.
How can we understand such apparent disrespect for the human rights of these populations?
I believe that it is connected to the fact that the countries most associated with founding human rights – Britain, France and the United States – also sponsored colonialism and slavery. Therefore, they necessarily denied the subjects they controlled many rights they enunciated because if they granted them, colonialism itself would have been undermined.
My book The Colonialism of Human Rights investigates how governmental stances on these thorny legacies reflect a longer history in which the practice of non-universal human rights corresponds with claims to allegiance to universal human rights. As I show, this moral confusion is now transparent, as the denial of human rights that colonialism and slavery wrought have turned into new refusals of human rights for selected populations.
Britain is not the only culprit – witness the burkini and headscarf bans for Muslims in France, systematic police harassment of African Americans and much worse, and as I personally observed, the continual violation of the rights of Native Americans in the conflict over the oil pipeline traversing lands sacred to the Sioux.
When formal colonialism ended, the attitudes that underpinned it did not go away.