17 May 2012
Economic and Social Council
HR/5095

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Eleventh Session

High-Level Commemoration (AM)


Indigenous Rights Declaration ‘Living Document Holding Dreams and Hopes of All


Indigenous Peoples’, Permanent Forum Told at Event Marking 5th Anniversary


Secretary-General, General Assembly President, Chair of Forum among Speakers;

Delegates Praise Declaration’s Promise, But Caution Gap Remains in Implementation


Hailing the adoption in 2007 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a “landmark” achievement borne of unprecedented cooperation among indigenous civil society groups and Governments, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this morning urged the entire international community to bolster support for native peoples and ensure that their rights, languages and cultural heritage was protected.


The joint work to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples that had begun with Declaration’s adoption five years ago “is not yet done”, and further steps must be taken to ensure their cultural heritage and sustainable ways of life were protected, said the Secretary-General in a video message to a high-level commemoration marking the adoption of the historic instrument.


Calling the Declaration a “living document holding the dreams and hopes of all indigenous peoples”, Grand Chief Edward John, Chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said that today’s commemoration also marked “the beginning of the healing process necessary for a new dawn in history.  One in which past dispossessions and injustices against indigenous peoples all over the world are recognized so they are never again repeated.”  Never again should one civilization be considered as inferior to others.  Indeed, it was such inhumanity of peoples to other peoples that lay at the very heart of the conceptual framework of the Declaration and other international instruments, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples.


“The United Nations, this house of hope for all peoples is also the house of hope for indigenous peoples,” he continued, saying that native and tribal peoples came to tell their stories, and hoped that the international community would pay attention and act with compassion.  Reminding delegations that in the early 1920s, Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh and Maori religious leader T.W. Ratana had been turned away from the doorstep of the League of Nations, he said:  “Today, we sit here to continue the call of indigenous peoples on the United Nations [system] to address the ongoing, systematic violations of our human rights, including our land rights.”


While decisions to mine, log or dam traditional lands continued to have profound impact in the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples, he said that the Declaration could be used as a foundation “for each and every claim for the recognition and protection of the inextricable spiritual links between we, indigenous peoples, and our lands and the natural world.”  The Permanent Forum would continue to pay close attention to the bottlenecks that hampered broad implementation of the Declaration, and he urged States to do their part.  “We cannot ignore the challenges and gaps.  We call on each and every one of you today:  Act on it!”  Working together, indigenous peoples and Governments could make the Declaration a “truly transformative force in the lives of indigenous peoples”.


In his opening remarks, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the General Assembly, said that the adoption of the Declaration was a hallmark in defining the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples.  Those rights constituted a minimum for their survival and dignity.  In some countries, the Declaration had resulted in the creation of specialized institutions, amendments of Constitutions and development of new policies and programmes, as well as judgements delivered by tribunals based on its articles.


Yet, more needed to be done, he said, echoing the common concern that Governments must be better about consulting indigenous peoples before making decisions that affected them.  Further, the United Nations needed to clarify standards for such consultations in decision making.  Looking ahead, he said the Assembly had decided to organize a World Conference of Indigenous Peoples in 2014.  That event would be an opportunity to share best practices on the rights of indigenous peoples using the Declaration as a framework for decisions.  Preparations for that Conference should be conducted through Member States and indigenous peoples, he said.


David Choquehuanca, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bolivia, set out specific proposals his Government believed would lead to a successful World Conference.  The event should be convened at the level of Heads of State and Government, in New York, and in the General Assembly Hall.  It should include participation of indigenous peoples from the Permanent Forum’s seven recognized socioeconomic regions, he said.  It should be built around a two-day general debate, alongside four roundtables on the following topics:  compliance with the objectives of the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples; status of implementation of the Declaration; contribution of indigenous peoples to the achievement of the international development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals; and fostering of financial and technical cooperation to better address the problems and challenges indigenous peoples faced.


He said Bolivia sought an action-oriented outcome document and political statement specifically expressing the international community’s will to implement the Declaration.  Bolivia was the only country that had ratified the Declaration and integrated its tenets into its Constitution, he said.  Five years on, that instrument was proving more important than ever, as Western development models were wounding Mother Earth.  Indeed, rampant and unchecked consumption of resources was destroying fragile biodiversity and the communities in which it thrived.  Some said that humankind’s heedless action had put the entire planet on the brink of crisis.   Bolivia promoted the notion of “living well”, which required listening to Mother Earth and all living beings.  “When we listen, we learn,” he said, adding that “living well” also meant seeking balance in all ways of being.


Praising the Declaration as a testament to the supreme sacrifice and hard work of indigenous peoples, who had faced down centuries of oppression and marginalization with the tools of diplomacy and appeals to the better side of human consciousness, James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, also sounded a note of caution.  Even as the Declaration was celebrated, it was hard to ignore the wide gap in its practical implementation.  Indeed, five years on, it remained more of a reminder of what had yet to be achieved than a measure of real change in the daily lives of indigenous peoples, he said.


To catalyse strengthened implementation, he said United Nations Member States should, individually and collectively, renew their commitment to supporting the Declaration.  There should be no room for equivocating about its implementation because of legalistic concerns.  Moreover, he said that implementation required building greater awareness about the Convention and the obligations of Governments.  Until non-indigenous peoples came to share in the need to achieve the goals of the Declaration, it would remain difficult to overcome the political, economic and social obstacles hampering its full implementation, he said.


Similarly, Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, was concerned that while the Declaration had inspired a number of promising new initiatives, ranging from consultative structure to targeted legislation, indigenous peoples remained among the world’s most marginalized and impoverished groups, and were frequently victims of discrimination and excluded from decision-making.  Land grabs and ever-increasing dispossession of ancestral lands, territories and resources threatened their cultural and physical integrity, with indigenous women often the first to suffer.


He recalled that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had supported the process of drafting the Declaration.  It was now equally committed to accompanying and supporting efforts to fill the implementation gaps that remained.  “We must do this in the same spirit of partnership that gave birth to the Declaration, ensuring that indigenous peoples have not only a voice, but true influence in decision-making,” he said, urging the international community to live up to the motto “nothing about us without us”.


Sanja Štiglic (Slovenia), delivering a statement on behalf of Slovenian President Danilo Türk, called the Declaration “a living document” and said that its adoption in 2007, after decades of work, signified an important landmark in the struggle for human rights and improvement in the life of indigenous peoples.  Today, there was every reason to look at the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination as an evolving right, which offered an important platform for appropriate types of political and legal status of indigenous peoples in accordance with their needs and, in particular, with their right to retain their distinct identity.  The right of indigenous peoples to full and effective participation in matters affecting them represented a significant source of empowerment, not only for indigenous peoples themselves, but also for the society at large, she added.


Signe Burgstaller (Sweden), speaking on behalf of Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, El Salvador, Finland, Guatemala, Indonesia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela, said that those delegations had expected to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Declaration’s adoption in the General Assembly Hall.


They had received notice late yesterday afternoon that that would not be the case.  “An unfortunate and untimely move,” she said, noting that the Permanent Forum had had similar difficulties in the past.  She urged, on behalf of the 22 delegations, that every effort be made by the office of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management to ensure that indigenous peoples were awarded fair treatment at the United Nations, in keeping with the spirit of the Declaration itself.


Later in the meeting, Luis Alfonso de Alba ( Mexico) joined others in expressing disappointment that the celebration was not being held in the Assembly Hall.  In his capacity as co-facilitator, along with John Henriksen (Saami Parliament of Norway) on the consultations with Governments and indigenous peoples on the format, organizational issues and possible outcomes of the World Conference, he said the informal discussions thus far had stressed that effective participation of indigenous peoples in that event must be ensured.  The World Conference would also be an opportunity to press ahead with the broader effort to advance implementation of the Declaration.


Throughout the morning, a host of indigenous peoples’ organizations and caucuses took the floor to urge Governments to take decisive, national-level action that enhanced the active involvement of indigenous peoples and protected their traditional cultures in the societies in which the lived.  Speakers across all regions cited yawning implementation gaps, particularly regarding land rights and decision-making power on the use of natural resources, which continued to negatively impact their communities.  Also, many speakers called on United Nations agencies and other intergovernmental organizations to be more involved in mainstreaming the Declaration in the design of their country support programmes.


Government representatives speaking at the commemoration also expressed their support for the landmark document and described some of the actions they had taken to apply its provisions in their dealings with indigenous communities.  For example, Australia’s representative highlighted the “Closing the Gap” strategy, which set ambitious targets to reduce indigenous disadvantages within a generation.  Consistent with the rights-based approach of the Declaration, it was a practical and empirical strategy that set targets to hold the Government to account on achieving its aims.  Finland’s speaker highlighted a new Action Plan adopted in March, which included various projects aimed at, among others, promoting the implementation of Saami people’s participatory rights.


The former Chairperson of the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples also made a presentation, as did the Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


Statements were also made by the following indigenous peoples’ organizations and caucuses:  Indigenous Peoples of Asia Caucus; Arctic Caucus; Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus of Africa; Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus of South, Central America and the Caribbean; Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus of the Pacific; Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus; and Indigenous Youth Caucus.


Also participating were the Government representatives of:   Ecuador, Denmark, United States, Finland, Germany, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Norway and Sweden.  A representative of the delegation of the European Union also made a statement.


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For information media • not an official record