19 October 2009
Press Conference

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

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights


The adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples two years ago signalled the “strong commitment” of the international community to remedy historical ills and combat the ongoing denial of rights, correspondents were told at a Headquarters press conference today.


The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedom of indigenous people, James Anaya, who took up his mandate in May 2008 and delivered his first report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee today (see Press Release GA/SHC/3954), described a range of activities aimed at monitoring the human rights of indigenous people worldwide, including visiting and investigating cases of alleged human rights violations in Brazil, Nepal, Chile, Australia, Botswana, Russian Federation and Colombia.


Responding to a question posed by a correspondent regarding his overall impression of human rights achievements in the Russian Federation, Mr. Anaya said he had been impressed by “progressive legislation and laws on the federal and regional levels”.  However, he stressed the need to consolidate and secure the implementation of these laws, as conditions were still very difficult for indigenous peoples there in terms of health, life expectancy and other human indicators.


He also noted the need, in the Russian Federation and elsewhere, to strengthen indigenous people’s participation in the design and implementation of the programmes designed to benefit them.


When asked what kinds of violations were taking place and in which countries, Mr, Anaya responded that he had received allegations from countries throughout the world.  The main issue was to note the general pattern of ongoing violations of the rights of indigenous populations, including the right to lands and resources, cultural integrity, and physical security.  He said these rights were lacking in places in Latin America, Africa, Asia and other regions.


On a positive note, he added that most Governments acknowledged this disparity and were willing to engage in a discussion.  Problems remained, however, and structural elements needed to be addressed within each country to ensure equality.


Another correspondent, speaking to situations in Latin America, asked whether Governments there were willing to work with indigenous peoples to address issues such as natural resources and their extraction by transnational companies.


Mr. Anaya replied that it was difficult to generalize about any one region, but that certain common patterns could be seen in Latin America.  Although all countries in that region supported the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an “enormous gap” existed between recognition and the day-to-day reality.  The activities of transnational companies, particularly the extractive industries, remained a common challenge throughout the region with regards to indigenous rights.


A further opening of dialogue was needed, he said, between Governments, indigenous peoples, and transnational companies.  A consensus must be arrived at by all those concerned, and all parties must be open to various possibilities, in the spirit of cooperation, respect, and a desire to find practical solutions.  This posed a “significant challenge”, since many problems were “systemic patterns of violation that dated back literally centuries”, and was hard to reverse.  However, he said that, little by little, movement towards that reversal was being made.


Governments and indigenous peoples alike should “inject a spirit of optimism”, he said, as a sense that “possible solutions” existed would speed progress.


Also speaking to the gap between policies and reality, a correspondent asked whether the last 10 years had seen a reduction of this gap, and what Mr. Anaya’s recommendations were regarding the more urgent challenges.


Mr. Anaya said that the gap had actually gotten wider in recent years.  This was due to the fact that there was now much greater recognition of indigenous people’s rights, while situations on the ground had “not changed much”.  Bridging that gap, or attempting to bridge it, remained at the heart of the Special Rapporteur’s work.


Asking how indigenous peoples could take more of an active role in discussions in the Third Committee and elsewhere throughout the Organization, one correspondent pointed out that they were “not like whales or trees, but can have a voice”.


Mr. Anaya said he wished that more indigenous journalists and media participated in the relevant United Nations events, and encouraged “colleagues in the indigenous media” to take a more active role.  However, he said that the United Nations was widely known as “a system of States”, and, therefore, structural elements were in place that were difficult or impossible to change.  However, he noted that some States were including indigenous people in their delegations, and this was “one place to start”.  He applauded the actions of Norway, which had included a member of the indigenous Sami people in its delegation who spoke “under the banner of Norway while speaking against Norwegian policy”.


When asked about the stark contrast between the living conditions of some indigenous peoples in Canada and the rest of the population, Mr. Anaya responded that, throughout the world, indigenous people suffered the harshest conditions, and that, in many ways, this was a marker of which groups were indigenous.  It was “highly troubling” that such conditions often existed, even in developed countries, he said.


In circumstances found from the Russian Federation to Canada, he said many times programmes to remedy the situation were launched with good intentions, but did not fit in with “social and political differences”, and were often “laced with paternalism”.


Responding to another question, he said that climate change was also a matter of deep concern, as indigenous peoples were suffering the most from its effects, including in the arctic and in small island nations.  However, he lamented the fact that animals at risk in the arctic often generated greater media attention than the people there.  “You hear more about polar bears and whales than about the people”, he said, a fact that was “deplorable”.


Another correspondent pointed out that Botswana’s “official position was that all people of that country were indigenous to Africa and had no separate indigenous groups.  Mr. Anaya said it was not his position to dispute that, as it was the prerogative of individuals to identify themselves.  However, he said he had expressed to that country’s leaders that he was interested in “particular indigenous groups” that were suffering inequalities, and intended to proceed on that basis.


Regarding the situation in Australia, Mr. Anaya said communities that were in their own “country” were the “most healthy”, while those near urban areas tended to suffer greater stress.  He added it was, therefore, necessary for Australian indigenous groups to maintain a connection to “their land” to restore the communities’ health “in a holistic way”.  He also said that country’s Government was “very aware” of the gap that needed to be bridged, and was carrying out a campaign around bridging that gap in terms of social and economic welfare, basic human indicators, and having a secure culture within a multicultural State.


Another correspondent raised the issue of indigenous peoples being driven from areas for environmental purposes, such as the preservation of wildlife or the creation of national parks, as was done when pygmies in Central Africa were expelled from their homes with a view to protecting the gorilla populations.


Mr. Anaya stressed that “the rights of gorillas are not the same as the rights of human beings”.  Indigenous peoples needed to have a say in such “environmental movements”, he said, and their views should only be overridden under “very exceptional circumstances”.  Many times in the past the rights of these groups were trampled in the name of conservation.  He strongly hoped those days were over.


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For information media • not an official record