PERMANENT FORUM SHOULD BE SHOWCASE FOR CONTRIBUTIONS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL SAYS AT OPENING SESSION

13 May 2002
HR/4589

PERMANENT FORUM SHOULD BE SHOWCASE FOR CONTRIBUTIONS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL SAYS AT OPENING SESSION

13/05/02
Press ReleaseHR/4589

Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

First Session

1st Meeting (AM)

PERMANENT FORUM SHOULD BE SHOWCASE FOR CONTRIBUTIONS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES,

DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL SAYS AT OPENING SESSION

New UN Body to Meet from 13 to 24 May;

Will Advise ECOSOC on Economic, Social, Cultural, Human Rights Matters

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which is holding its first session from 13-24 May, should not focus exclusively on grievances, but serve as a showcase for the many contributions that indigenous peoples could make, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette said this morning.

Opening today’s morning meeting of the Permanent Forum, which is mandated to advise the Economic and Social Council on issues of concern to indigenous people, she said the tradition of consensus found among many indigenous people could contribute to conflict resolution and good governance.  The medicinal knowledge of indigenous peoples was of enormous value, and the world also had much to learn from them in managing complex ecosystems, promoting biodiversity, increasing crop productivity and conserving land.

Such interaction between indigenous peoples and the rest of the international community could only succeed if indigenous peoples were secure in their human rights, she said, noting that indigenous peoples shared a “terrible history” of injustice.  They had been killed, tortured, enslaved and deprived of their political rights as well as their lands.

Ivan Simonovic (Croatia), President of the Economic and Social Council, said the Forum represented a chance to make up for some of the numerous injustices experienced by indigenous peoples.  Outlining the efforts leading up to the establishment of the Permanent Forum, he called it an “open transparent, and participatory body.”  He said its first report should be in concrete and clear language, along with clear planning for the World Conference on Sustainable Development and other events relating directly to the concerns of participants.

Tadodaho Sid Hill, spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee people, expressed the hope that through the Forum, indigenous peoples could defend their right to self-determination, their lands and their ways of life.  Of great importance was the ratification of the Earth Charter and assuring respect for the natural world.  He called for a summit on indigenous issues at the end of the decade and a permanent Secretariat for indigenous peoples.  Welcoming participants with a ceremonial invocation in his native language, he said,  “I greet you to the Northeast Territory of the Great Turtle Island now known as North America.”

Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the Permanent Forum represented a challenge that had actually been met –- to find space within the United Nations system to address the issues affecting indigenous communities.  Poverty reduction and other developmental issues should be viewed from the indigenous perspective, whether the communities were traditional or urban.  Of all the pressing issues, providing a voice for young people and countering discrimination were paramount, she added.

In other business this morning, the Permanent Forum elected Ole Henrik Magga (Norway) as its Chairperson.  Also elected, by acclamation, were four Vice-Chairpersons:  Antonia Jacanamijoy (Colombia); Njuma Ekundanayo (Democratic Republic of the Congo); Parshuram Tamang (Nepal); and Mililani Trask (United States).  Also by acclamation, it elected Willie Littlechild (Canada) its Rapporteur.

Other speakers this morning were Saoudata Aboubacrine, a young Tuareg women; Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; and Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will continue its session when it meets again at 3 p.m. today.

Background 

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues began its first session this morning, expecting to adopt its agenda and hear statements by senior United Nations-system officials.

Statements

Opening the session, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette said the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was a milestone in the struggle of thousands of indigenous peoples to win recognition of their rights and identities.  Although the world’s 300–500 million indigenous people were very diverse, a joint sense of their cultures bound them all.

She said that with such extraordinary diversity there was necessarily great complexity, she said.  Not all indigenous people shared the same priorities; some were concerned primarily with land, others with culture.  Nor did they share the same point of view.  Some might want to preserve, unchanged, their ways of life, while others wanted to participate fully in the material and cultural life of the societies around them.

However, one thing that indigenous people shared was a “terrible history” of injustice.  “Indigenous people have been killed, tortured and enslaved,” she said.  They had been deprived of their political rights, such as the right to vote.  Their lands have been taken by conquest and colonization.  Questions of self-determination, self-rule, and autonomy raised fundamental issues of sovereignty and the prerogatives of the nation-State.  Questions of intellectual property and cultural diversity touched on the core of human dignity and identity.

She said that questions of land and resource rights –- which made up most of the human rights complaints indigenous peoples brought to the United Nations -– were matters of life and death for many of them.  Visions of development might clash.  Good-faith efforts to ensure that indigenous peoples had full access to the benefits and opportunities of modernization could well collide with equally responsible efforts to preserve some indigenous life-styles.

Ms. Fréchette added that she hoped the Forum would not only focus on grievances but would showcase the many contributions that indigenous peoples could make.  The tradition of consensus found among many indigenous people could contribute to conflict resolution and good governance.  Medicinal knowledge –- discovered, developed and passed from generation to generation by indigenous peoples –- was of enormous value.  The world also had much to learn from indigenous peoples in managing complex ecosystems, promoting biodiversity, increasing crop productivity and conserving land. 

Such interaction between indigenous peoples and the rest of the international community could only proceed and succeed if indigenous peoples were secure in their human rights, she said.  As yet, however, there were no universal standards on the rights of indigenous people as such.  The Commission on Human Rights was now studying a draft declaration, and the drafting process had done much to raise awareness.  The declaration would not be legally binding, but it would carry considerable moral force and complement existing international human rights instruments, which did not by themselves cover the full range of indigenous peoples’ concerns.  It was hoped that consensus could be reached in time for the General Assembly to adopt the declaration before 2004 –- the end of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

IVAN SIMONOVIC, President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), outlined the efforts that led to the inauguration of the Permanent Forum, calling it an “open transparent, and participatory body.”  Awaiting the first report of the new body, he requested concrete and clear language, along with clear planning for the World Conference on Sustainable Development and other events that directly related to the concerns of participants.  The Forum represented, he said, a chance to make up for some of the numerous injustices experienced by indigenous peoples.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), expressed hope that the economic, political, social and cultural rights of indigenous peoples would be pushed through in the implementation of the Millennium development targets.  Referring to the links of indigenous peoples to nature, he said it would not be possible to protect the rights of people without protecting the environment in which they lived.  A UNDP policy paper addressed those issues, he said.

SAOUDATA ABOUBACRINE, a young woman of the Tuareg People, said that being present today was the fulfillment of a longtime dream, enabling her and other participants to counter policies that had long subordinated indigenous peoples.  She spoke of education and health as top priorities in reducing the vulnerability of indigenous peoples.  Combating the AIDS epidemic was particularly important. 

As young indigenous people, especially young women, were particularly vulnerable, they must be given a strong international voice through the forum, she said.  She thanked all those who were working to provide that voice, and reminded all those present that they must make the most of the opportunity at hand.

ANNA TIBAIJUKA, Executive Director of the United Nations for Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), said 17 paragraphs of the Habitat Agenda concerned indigenous issues.  The Agenda wanted to support the economic activities indigenous people and to secure their safe interaction with other economies.  Another issue was that of patenting of indigenous knowledge.  It wished to protect and promote the rights of indigenous people.  With the Committee on Human Rights, Habitat took great exception to the forced resettlement programmes undertaken without the decision-making participation of the peoples involved.

MARY ROBINSON, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the forum represented a challenge that had actually been met –- to find space within the United Nations system to address the issues affecting indigenous communities.  The structure that encourages partnership between governments and organizations of the peoples, was particularly laudable.  That sense of partnership must continue, she said.  This was a body that could address indigenous issues in a holistic manner. 

Land was a crucial issue; closely related was the protection of the environment.  Poverty reduction and other developmental issues needed to be viewed from the indigenous perspective, whether the communities were traditional or urban.  The rich cultural knowledge of all those communities also needed to be protected.  Out of all the pressing issues, she said that providing a voice for young people and countering discrimination were paramount.  A coordinating group

of United Nations agencies had been formed, but permanent support and finance mechanisms were needed.  She appealed to Member States for support in those areas.

OLE HENRIK MAGGA, Chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, followed the election of officers with the reading of a dedicatory poem.  He extended thanks to all of those who had worked for so long to make the forum a reality.  There were many indigenous peoples, he said, who could not be represented at the opening session, and he hoped that eventually all would participate. 

He expressed confidence that the many challenges that faced the forum would be met, in the spirit of partnership in which it was beginning and with the support of international agencies, Member States and the indigenous peoples themselves.  Among the crucial issues to be addressed were marginalization, violence, discrimination, degradation of lands, and self-determination.

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For information media. Not an official record.