18 May 2009
Press Conference

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

press conference by permanent forum on indigenous issues on eighth session


The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues had an urgent mandate to activate the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples through national legislation around the world, members said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon on today’s opening of the Forum’s eighth session.  (See Press Release HR/4980)


“The Declaration is now the shining star for navigation of all indigenous issues,” said Carsten Smith of Norway, an expert on the legal rights of the Arctic Saami people, adding:  “Unfortunately, there is a very huge implementation gap in the world”, in reference to the advancement of all such human rights declarations.


Joining him at the press conference, were Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the Permanent Forum and an indigenous activist from the Cordillera region of the Philippines, and Lars Anders Baer of Sweden, a member of the Saami Council.


Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said there had been some progress in making the Declaration national law, noting that it had been embedded in Bolivian domestic law and in the Constitution of Ecuador.  It had also been used as the basis of court opinions in Belize and Suriname.


However, quicker progress was needed in implementing the Declaration, she said, partly because much of the world’s untapped oil, gas and mineral wealth lay beneath indigenous lands, a topic that would be a main focus of the eighth session.  The Forum would consider the effects of extractive industries on indigenous peoples and discuss mechanisms that could get corporations to comply with the Declaration in terms of respecting the rights of indigenous peoples, seeking their consent and negotiating with them.  In a recent workshop on the issue, almost 90 per cent of indigenous groups had said that consent for mining operations in their areas had never been obtained from them.  To make their case, international venues were the only recourse because they could not rely on national courts.


Mr. Baer pointed out that those considerations were particularly important in the Arctic region, where possibly 40 per cent of the world’s gas and oil resources remained.  It was becoming more accessible to exploitation owing to the melting of the ice sheets induced by climate change.


Among countries with claims to parts of the Arctic, Canada and the United States had voted against the Declaration, the Russian Federation had abstained, while Denmark and Greenland were reshaping their relationship.  As in the cold war, indigenous peoples had once again become “cards in a political game”.


Asked about the involvement of various companies in deep-sea mining, the panellists stressed that it was crucial to clarify the transboundary obligations of corporations working abroad.


In response to a question about Saami fishing rights, Mr. Baer pointed to a freshwater fishing case brought in the Swedish courts because the political and legislative systems did not wish to deal with it.


Asked if there had been outreach to see whether the new Obama Administration would reverse the stance of the United States on the Declaration, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said she had spoken to State Department officials about indigenous control over forests in relationship to climate change and there had been some positive movement on that issue.


She went on to say that the objections of the United States concerned fears that it would incur liabilities due to conflicting obligations under the Declaration and the International Tobacco Convention, as well as potential problems arising from its imports of softwoods from Canada.


When a correspondent noted that the notion of specific indigenous rights contravened Canada’s constitutional framework by appearing to trump the rights of other groups, the panellists stressed that that was a mistaken notion.  The Declaration, like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, was merely an interpretation of international human rights law, but as it applied to indigenous peoples.


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For information media • not an official record