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Indigenous Peoples are emerging as diplomats on the world stage. With states relinquishing some “soft power” space to non-state actors, the role of Indigenous Peoples in international diplomacy and particularly human rights diplomacy is both distinctive and important.
Standing back, the greatest influence of Indigenous Peoples on international law is our contribution to a pragmatically-driven yet conscious reframing of its foundations. Partly as a result of our participation in international law, it is changing its nineteenth and twentieth century state-centric, colonial, and positivist character to a more informal, flexible, and partially decolonizing system of law. In this way, Indigenous Peoples are crafting a legal system that achieves the “sweet-spot.” It has sufficient “hard-law” quality to restrain the self-interested instincts of powerful states—much needed by Indigenous Peoples seeking to realize their claims against states—and systemic inclusion and justice.
Key studies have highlighted how Western law was central to the civilizing mission of colonialism, legitimizing conquest while presenting itself as a colonizer's gift for overcoming barbarism. But law was not just an imposition to dispossess resources and accumulate labor; it was also transformed by the contestations of First Nations and the new practices deployed in settler societies. In this context, the first international legal theories were aimed at subordinating third world societies and, at the same time, provided the foundations of Western legal apparatus, shaping racially the modern concepts of sovereignty, territory, and property.
International law has long recognized that the power of a state to identify its nationals is a central attribute of sovereignty and firmly within the purview of domestic law. Yet these boundaries may be shifting, in part due to the effect of international human rights norms. In 2011, citizenship scholar Peter Spiro asked, “[w]ill international law colonize th[is] last bastion of sovereign discretion?” Ten years later, this essay reframes the question, asking whether the international law of Indigenous Peoples’ rights will “decolonize” the discretion, by encouraging its exercise in ways that respect and enable Indigenous connections to their traditional land. It considers this possibility in light of two recent cases decided by courts in Australia and Canada, both of which ascribe a distinctive legal status to non-citizen Indigenous persons: Love v. Commonwealth, Thoms v Commonwealth (“Love-Thoms,” Australian High Court) and R. v. Desautel (“Desautel,” British Columbia Court of Appeal, currently on appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada). In each case, the court in question recognized that some Indigenous non-citizens have constitutional rights to remain within the state's territory (and perhaps also a correlative right to enter it), by virtue of their pre-contact ancestral ties to land within the state's borders.