Rethinking the rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples

On the eve of the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, one University of Queensland researcher has questioned the relevance of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the declaration, which provides a framework for human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to 370 million indigenous people across 90 countries.

For TC Beirne School of Law Professor Jennifer Corrin, an expert on the relationship between traditional and modern legal systems in Pacific island nations, the concept of a ‘bill of rights’ does not address the problem of aligning international expectations with constitutional recognition of customary laws.

“The declaration claims to embody a ‘global consensus on the rights of indigenous peoples and…a universal framework of minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being’,” Professor Corrin said.

“But some traditional laws and the way justice is served can contradict and invalidate those imposed standards.

“It's the right of every sovereign state, no matter how small or developed, to decide on its own laws and legal systems.

“The declaration has certainly propelled a powerful shift in how the rights of indigenous peoples are recognised worldwide.

“But for many countries, including the 10 Pacific island nations in our region that didn’t vote on the declaration, it’s a western construct that has minimal impact on how legal disputes are settled, especially where customary law is enshrined in the constitution.”

Professor Corrin said that understanding how pluralist regimes functioned was critical if Australia and other developed nations wanted to interact with them successfully.

“They can become caught in complex and intergenerational conflicts among local communities, for whom traditional laws often trump any international standards,” Professor Corrin said.

“We’re looking for transferable lessons and solutions to problems arising from plural systems, and hoping to identify practical measures for achieving reform that can accommodate both State and customary laws.

“For some of Australia’s smaller neighbours, the co-existence of two legal systems creates tension and prolongs legal disputes.

This happens not just within the countries themselves, but also for foreign investors and international development agencies trying to negotiate access to resources for commercial and capability building purposes.”

Professor Corrin’s research focuses on access to justice in Pacific island nations, drawing on her experience of practising and teaching law in the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.

She was awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship in 2013 to further her research on law reform and development in plural legal regimes.

Professor Corrin is a co-investigator in a $1.99 million five-year international collaboration involving researchers from 14 universities in seven countries.

She is also involved in an Australian Research Council-funded project focussing on the Torres Strait Treaty.

Contact: Professor Jennifer Corrin, j.corrin@law.uq.edu.au, +61 7 3365 2295; Faculty of Business, Economics and Law, Alysha Hilevuo, a.hilevuo@uq.edu.au, +61 (0) 428 884 097.

Last updated:
9 August 2017