10 September 2011

Wikileaks: The U.S. Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago, the Amerindians, and Indigenous Rights

Thanks to the recent release of WikiLeaks' U.S. Embassy cables, we have a complete set for Trinidad and Tobago, and many of the items are quite striking and revealing. One is of particular relevance to Trinidad's Indigenous community. It seems that the U.S. Embassy worked to temper any Trinidadian embrace of a new Indigenous Rights charter (that being drafted by the OAS), and that on the other hand, the Trinidadian government had a very selective view of what rights it had actually signed on to at the UN, as well as seeming agreeable to making concessions to the U.S. Of course none of this international diplomatic chatter on the rights of Trinidad's Indigenous People was previously made public.

Apparently the public profile of Trinidad and Tobago's Indigenous community, specifically the Santa Rosa Carib Community, came up in discussions between the Government of Trinidad and Tobago (GOTT) and an officer in the Political Affairs section (PolOff) of the U.S. Embassy in Port of Spain, according to a WikiLeaks cable. The cable is marked as "sensitive but unclassified". In a meeting that took place on 22 October 2007, Ms. Delia Chatoor of the Multilateral Affairs Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mentioned that "Trinidad and Tobago's own small Amerindian community had recently become more vocal, and that a week dedicated to the history and culture of the group had just concluded [Amerindian Heritage Week]". These remarks were made in connection with developing a government position on the work of the Organization of American States (OAS) in preparing a Draft Declaration of Indigenous Rights (DRIP) (also see this and that), and in light of the then recent passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples--which the GOTT approved. We already know, from other WikiLeaks cables, that the U.S. worked actively on the international front to try to pressure governments to vote against the UN Declaration. However, the remarks by the Trinidadian government official are rather curious.

With reference to the UN Declaration, Chatoor commented that "states could...pick and choose which items to endorse"--when the GOTT in fact voted to approve the Declaration as a whole, not select parts. This comment suggests some duplicity on the part of the government, in that it might "pick and choose" those elements which it found to be least of a challenge to the dominant order. To her credit, she also told the U.S. Embassy official that "the UN declaration was important as a means of reminding people indigenous rights was not a dead issue and that indigenous communities should be factored into considerations of human rights".

However, when it came to the OAS DRIP, Chatoor seemed to agree with the U.S. Embassy that instead of a Declaration, "a Year of Action and a non-binding action plan also had merit". Merit for whom? Certainly not for Indigenous Peoples, as this would mean the adoption of superficial, symbolic actions. While she earlier implied that the more vocal Amerindian community in Trinidad had an impact on the Government's decision-making regarding Indigenous Rights, her subsequent willingness to concede to U.S. interests, and her delegating authority to Trinidad's diplomatic mission at the OAS before reaching any decision, make it apparent that the rights of Trinidad's Indigenous People are not as important as they ought to be--and they are apparently subject to negotiation with foreign powers.