Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


Andre Lawrey

First Page



This Article examines recent attempts to improve international standards governing the rights of indigenous peoples. In this context, Ms. Lawrey analyzes the Australian Government's 1988 commitment to negotiate a treaty with Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Ms. Lawrey discusses the strained relationship between international law and indigenous peoples. At present, indigenous groups are not guaranteed special rights under international law. Furthermore, traditional individual rights are inadequate to effectively protect indigenous land rights and the right to self-determination. Ms. Lawrey identifies developments in indigenous rights since World War II, including International Labor Organization Convention Number 107 (Convention 107) and the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Despite these advances, Ms. Lawrey indicates Convention 107 is of little practical value and that for the United Nations Working Group to succeed, it must effectively address the issues of land rights and self-determination and must recognize the importance of treaties to indigenous peoples.

Ms. Lawrey also discusses the contemporary relevance of treaties, high-lighting the recurring conflicts between indigenous peoples and their national governments. In addition, Ms. Lawrey questions the practical value of treaties as guarantees of indigenous rights, as states are free to modify or terminate such treaties on a unilateral basis.

Under this framework, Ms. Lawrey examines the Australian Aboriginal Treaty proposal against the background of the settled colony doctrine in Australia and its implications for Aboriginal rights. Aborigines have called for a solemn and binding negotiated treaty. Although the Australian Government publicly has committed itself to negotiate such an agreement, there are political difficulties to overcome before this commitment can be fulfilled.

Ms. Lawrey concludes that a worthwhile Universal Declaration on indigenous rights must deal with the sensitive issue of indigenous self-determination in a way that is acceptable both to indigenous groups and national governments. She further concludes that for any domestic agreement on indigenous rights to be effective, it must include a credible guarantee that it will not be subject to unilateral modification or termination by future governments. Ms. Lawrey indicates that possible alternatives to this requirement include mandatory international oversight, international dispute settlement for a independent conciliation, and other methods of guaranteeing the binding character of treaties or agreements with indigenous peoples.