UN rights officials call on countries to back declaration on indigenous peoples

Colombian indigenous children in jungle settlements in Panama [File Photo]

8 August 2008 – Two senior United Nations human rights officials called today for political commitment from States and the support of the public at large to fulfil the rights of indigenous peoples around the globe, in a joint statement released on the eve of the International Day of the World's Indigenous People.

Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people. S. James Anaya, both lauded the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples last year by the General Assembly, but said that it “will not in itself change the everyday lives of the men, women and children whose rights it champions.”

“For this we need the political commitment of States, international cooperation, and the support and good will of the public at large, to create and implement a range of intensely practical programmes, designed and undertaken in consultation with indigenous peoples themselves,” they said.

The Declaration lays down minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the world's estimated 5,000 indigenous groups, comprising as many as 370 million people.

In a separate statement, Mr. Anaya expressed his concern at reports of arbitrary displacement and other abuses suffered by members of the Charco la Pava community, which is part of the Ngöbe indigenous community in Bocas del Toro Province in Panama, where the construction of a hydroelectric project, called CHAN 75, is taking place.

“I observe with concern the human rights violations suffered by members of the Charco la Pava community, such as arbitrary displacement from their lands, loss of housing and destruction of agricultural crops, and other abuses such as the excessive use of force and detaining of members of the community that have opposed the construction of the hydroelectric project, including women and children.”

Mr. Anaya said he was concerned that the situation was deteriorating, and that, given the presence of an armed police force in the area, the situation could worsen. He said he had information that the AES Changuinola Company was moving ahead without the control or the supervision of the government authorities.

He added that the project could result in the complete flooding of the Charco la Pava community, without obtaining their informed consent.

In another development today, the UN refugee agency said that forced displacement was devastating the lives of indigenous people in Colombia.

“There are around a million indigenous people in Colombia, belonging to more than 80 different Indian-American groups with over 60 separate languages. Nearly all of these groups have been victims of forced displacement or are threatened by it as a result of the internal armed conflict,” Ron Redmond, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said today.

Mr. Redmond added that every year between 10,000 and 20,000 indigenous people are registered by national authorities after being forced to flee from their lands, stressing that the economic, social and cultural survival of indigenous communities depends on their very strong links with their ancestral land.

“In many cases, losing their territory and moving into the entirely foreign environment of the cities threatens the very survival of the group and its individual members,” he said.

Also on the eve of the International Day, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that indigenous peoples were especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“Indigenous peoples are among the first to suffer from increasingly harsh and erratic weather conditions, and a generalized lack of empowerment to claim goods and services to which other population groups have greater access,” Regina Laub, FAO focal point for indigenous peoples, said today.

FAO stressed that indigenous peoples also had a critical role to play in supporting global adaptation to climate change.

“Indigenous communities are often the custodians of unique knowledge and skills, and the genetic and biological diversity in plant and animal production that may be vital in adapting to climate change. Approximately 80 per cent of the world's remaining biodiversity is found within indigenous peoples' territories,” the agency said.

Also today, the UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said that indigenous people all over the world are stewards of an immense wealth of diversity and that their existence is crucial to sustaining development in the countries where they live.

Speaking at an event in New York to commemorate the International Day, she said the UN was firmly committed to promoting and protecting the rights of every human being – regardless of background, creed or culture.


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