Indigenous people have enjoyed only small gains in past decade: UN expert

23 September 2004 – The International Decade of the World's Indigenous People brought only modest achievements, and indigenous people continue to endure below-average living standards, unequal access to justice and the loss of traditional territories, the United Nations official charged with spotlighting their human rights says.

In a report to the General Assembly, Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen said the International Decade - which ended this year - had not ended the history of human rights violations against indigenous people.

While there have been some advances at the national level, such as the introduction of favourable legislation, Mr. Stavenhagen reports, discrimination is still common in local communities.

Negotiations on a draft UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples also remain deadlocked, nine years after a working group was set up to achieve agreement.

"Indigenous peoples the world over are usually among the most marginalized and dispossessed sectors of society, because they suffer discrimination and face prejudices that are often perpetuated within societies. Despite the existence of protective legislation, the rights of indigenous peoples are very often denied in practice," he says.

He calls on the General Assembly to consider proclaiming a second decade on indigenous rights so that existing gains can be consolidated and more attention can be focused to the issue.

Mr. Stavenhagen finds that access to land and natural resources is a key cause of discontent, as indigenous communities have to make way for economic projects such as large dams. The communities are evicted or forced to re-settle elsewhere, and are often unable to find a replacement source of livelihood.

Moreover, he adds, displacing indigenous people from their ancestral lands can have shattering effects on the social fabric of their communities.

Turning to issues of justice, the Special Rapporteur says not enough countries make an effort to integrate customary indigenous law into their legal systems, alienating indigenous groups and depriving them of some measure of self-determination.

While some States have moved to protect regional, minority or indigenous languages, just as many others have not, and are particularly unlikely to design their educational system and syllabus around the concerns of indigenous people.

Mr. Stavenhagen has been Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people since 2001.

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