High suicide rates among indigenous youth related directly to the severe — and often invisible — discriminatory pressures they confronted in reconciling past colonial injustices with their search for a better future, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard today amid strong calls for education, health care and job opportunities that honoured their traditional heritage.
Opening the meeting, Ahmad Alhendawi, Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, said many indigenous children and youth were unable to access their basic human rights, suffering from preventable disease, as well as a lack of medical care, education and support from local authorities when they tried to stand up for their rights.
“You have to pause here and ask why this is the case,” he said. The data spoke to a bleak reality. Suicide among Inuit youth in Canada was among the highest in the world and 11 times the national average. In Australia, suicide was the leading cause of death for Aboriginal people aged 15 to 35 years, while in New Zealand, suicide among Maori youth in 2012 was nearly three times the rate among their non-Maori counterparts.
Suicide and self-harm were not merely mental health issues, he said, but related to social and economic situations. Going forward, young indigenous people must have a voice, both in their communities and within the United Nations. He looked forward to working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on strategies to tackle self-harm and suicide, stressing that more indigenous youth were needed in the work of the Forum.
That point was echoed by several representatives of the Global Youth Caucus, who decried the trauma perpetrated against their peoples through denial of the very languages, knowledge and values that had brought traditional communities to life. “We deserve to heal,” said one speaker, stressing the need for education influenced by ancestral values and languages. Communities had to move forward in ways that allowed for ownership and pride.
In that context, another Youth Caucus speaker pressed the Forum to work with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UNICEF to increase education about indigenous peoples’ diversity, history and rights.
Throughout the day, representatives of indigenous groups, Governments and United Nations agencies continued general debate on the six areas of the Forum’s mandate.
Many indigenous speakers drew attention to situations in which the rights of their people were being disrespected, especially around traditional land, territory and resources. Among those was the representative of the Centre for Organizational Research and Advocacy, Manipur who called on India to repeal its Armed Forces Special Powers Act and enforce a moratorium on all mega-development projects that failed to consider the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities in Manipur.
Along similar lines, the speaker from the Network of Indigenous Women’s Biodiversity Latin America and the Caribbean said the Forum should press WHO to help indigenous peoples affected by the poisonous consequences of illegal mining in the Venezuelan Amazon.
Government representatives outlined ways their administrations were working to improve indigenous peoples’ lives, with the representative of the Russian Federation noting that legislation granted special legal status and priority access of indigenous peoples to natural resources. Indigenous peoples enjoyed the right to land use free of charge in areas of traditional residence.
The representative of Ecuador said that through a participatory public policy, her country had offered opportunities for employment, health, economic empowerment and the development of peoples and nationalities which had historically been excluded. It also had created national councils for equality.
Forum experts also offered their views, with Oliver Loode, Forum member from Estonia, pointing to the “disappointing tendency” of the Russian Federation to blacklist several indigenous non-governmental organizations, which were accused of being “foreign agents”. Such labelling resulted in damage to those organization’s reputation, created bureaucratic hurdles and could result in financial penalties.
Kara-Kys Arakchaa, Forum member from the Russian Federation, said that in fact, the Forum’s recommendations were being heeded. “Many of our issues might take years to address,” she said, stressing that States were not always ready to immediately tackle them. She had always drawn attention to the positive aspects in indigenous peoples’ lives, especially on issues of self-governance, lands, education, language and culture.
Also speaking today were representatives of Alianza de Mujeres Indigenas de Centroamerica y Mexico, Mokuola Honua, Inuit Circumpolar Council and the United Confederation of Taino People.
Representatives of the Philippines, Cuba and Bolivia also spoke.
Forum members from Canada, United States, Russian Federation, Algeria and Estonia made interventions, as did a member of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Representatives of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) also delivered remarks.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will reconvene at 3 p.m. on Thursday, 12 May, to continue its fifteenth session.
AHMAD ALHENDAWI, Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, said there was a strong international normative framework around the rights of indigenous children and youth, with the Convention on the Rights of the Child outlining that they should live long lives free from poverty and discrimination and feel proud of their identity. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also guaranteed a set of rights and freedoms for indigenous youth, such as culturally appropriate education.
Yet, he said, many indigenous children and youth were unable to exercise and access those human rights, suffering from preventable disease, as well as a lack of medical care, education and support from local authorities when they tried to stand up for their rights. “And you have to pause here and ask why this is the case,” he said, noting that he had heard from them about their struggles.
The data spoke of a “bleak reality”, he said, with suicide among Inuit youth in Canada among the highest in the world and 11 times the national average. In Australia, suicide was the leading cause of death for young Aboriginal people aged 15 to 35 years, while in New Zealand, in 2012, suicide among Maori youth was nearly three times the rate among their non-Maori counterparts. Suicide and self-harm were not merely mental health issues, but rather, were directly related to the social and economic situation.
Going forward, he said young indigenous people must have a voice both in their communities and within the United Nations, and he looked forward to engaging with them. He also looked forward to working more with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on strategies to tackle self-harm and suicide, collecting best practices on prevention and sharing information with others. More indigenous young people were needed in the work of the Permanent Forum and the Economic and Social Council Youth Forum.
With that, he pledged to work closely with the Indigenous Youth Caucus to mobilize young indigenous people who were combating climate change, building peace and fighting poverty worldwide.
A representative of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus said that indigenous peoples, and especially the youth, had a special connection to the environment. Traditions, languages, and the relationship to the land were the fundamental basis of indigenous identity. Many indigenous peoples living in urban environments had been stripped of their connections with those critical elements of life, which was a cause of suicide among the youth. The underlying causes of suicide were complex and could only be understood through history and culture. Promoting indigenous languages, connections to the land and ancestors would allow the youth to heal and overcome the intergenerational trauma they had faced. Forced displacement due to the implementation of projects in the name of development pushed youth towards urban areas, exposing them to racism and discriminatory treatments, which had significantly affected their self-esteem and health. Proper support needed to be put into place so that indigenous youth could find hope for survival.
Another representative of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus said that forced displacement had violated the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples. Defending traditional lands and territories had led to persecution, disappearances and the murder of the leaders. Colonization had produced a great history of trauma that had devastating effects on indigenous youth. The denial of native languages, traditional knowledge, identities and Mother Earth were all detrimental to indigenous youth. The effects of colonization had resulted in many youth engaging in self-harm and suicide to “stop the pain”. It was not accurate to say that indigenous youth wanted to possess their traditional lands for economic gain.
The Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, she said, recommended that the United Nations establish programmes and funds that would help indigenous peoples regain control of their territories, natural resources and traditional knowledge, with the full participation of youth. The United Nations should generate a mitigation mechanism to address climate change, with full indigenous participation. Further, States should generate mechanisms for entitlement and collective possession of indigenous territory and ensure the legal governance of indigenous peoples over their territory. She recalled that the rights of indigenous peoples were linked to the most fundamental of human rights, which were obligatory for States. The youth were most affected by forced displacement from territories, which often resulted in self-harm and suicide. There needed to be national strategies, coordinated with indigenous peoples to reduce deforestation. The Caucus recommended mechanisms that ensured free, prior and informed consent and concrete policies to eliminate racism, discrimination and intolerance against indigenous peoples. Mechanisms should also be adopted to regulate the content of media that perpetuated discriminatory and racist stereotypes of indigenous peoples.
Another representative of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus stressed that indigenous youth had the right to access the learning of their ancestors. “We must be proud of our culture,” she said, and have a clear cultural identity. The history of colonization should be made transparent to young people and openly discussed so that families could heal. Education had become a tool of stigmatization — and an intergenerational trauma was slaughtering indigenous communities through drug and alcohol addiction, self-harm and suicide. “We deserve to heal,” she said, noting that education was the solution. It was crucial that education be influenced by ancestral values and languages. Indigenous youth were at a cross roads: “we must decide how to move forward”, she said, in a way that allowed for ownership and pride. The education system must reflect collective and holistic norms and values to build the foundations that indigenous youth dreamed of for generations to come.
Another representative of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus recommended that decolonization be part of the education system, reaffirming that indigenous peoples had the right to determine what they wanted to learn and what non-indigenous people learned about them. The Forum must work with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UNICEF and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to increase education about the diversity, history and rights of indigenous peoples. She called on all United Nations agencies to collaborate with States to implement the Declaration’s article 15, recommending that UNESCO provide empowerment programmes on the transmission of traditional knowledge and languages.
Following the presentation by the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, participants were invited to respond to their recommendations.
EDWARD JOHN, Forum member from Canada, said the youth must be valued as “treasures”, as they were the foundation of the future and would be the ones to pass on knowledge, traditions and teachings to the next generation.
DALEE SAMBO DOROUGH, Forum member from Alaska, urged Member States to take up the recommendations made by the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, particularly those related to education, and the need for financial resources to address the phenomena of self-harm and suicide.
WILTON LITTLECHILD, member of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of Canada, noted that addressing the threat of self-harm and suicide could be as simple as promoting environments for children to play, such as setting up local youth recreation centres.
Mr. ALHENDAWI agreed with the all the comments made, which had validated the data reflecting young indigenous people’s realities. He urged exploring the root causes of self-harm, suicide and discrimination, and agreed that the right to play should afford children safe public spaces to enjoy land and services. The approach should be to promote healthy development. There was a need to define what constituted a decent opportunity for indigenous youth, which should include access to culturally appropriate education. Traditional livelihoods should be supported.
Mr. MONTERO, Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, said suicide and self-harm was a problem related to mental health, as well as assimilation, loss of language, forced displacement and lack of public policies. The political will of States and United Nations agencies, along with indigenous groups, would allow for solving the problems indigenous youth faced. The Caucus would continue to work with the Forum in fighting for the rights of all generations.
AISA MUKABENOVA, Forum member from the Russian Federation, advocated developing clear responses to the issue of young people’s self-harm and suicide. There was a call for WHO to craft a global programme to combat that behaviour and study its proliferation and compile best practices. She hoped to see results.
MARIAM WALLET ABOUBAKRINE, Forum member from Algeria, said that indigenous young people not only suffered from factors influencing their socioeconomic status, they were also frustrated by the militarization of their lands and territories, which had become “theatres of abuse”, which had left scars. She urged WHO put forward a global response for mental health of young indigenous peoples and more closely cooperate with the Forum and set up a focal point. “We are facing a lack of interlocutors within this organization,” she stressed.
IGOR BARINOV, Head of the Agency of Nationality Affairs of the Russian Federation, said the Government had provided protections for indigenous peoples to help them maintain their traditional ways of life, economy and industry. From 2002–2010, the aggregate number of indigenous peoples had increased by 3 per cent in the country. On human rights, Russian legislation granted special legal status and priority access of indigenous peoples to natural resources. Indigenous peoples enjoyed the right to land use free of charge in areas of traditional residence. Social concessions were granted as well, including early retirement, five years earlier than other Russian citizens. Additional social support measures were in place for indigenous peoples, including targeted assistance for housing and health. Support for traditional economic activity, culture and language was also provided. Indigenous peoples were members of both chambers of the Russian Parliament. Improving the quality of life of indigenous peoples was a top priority within the Russian Federation’s sustainable development framework.
OLIVER LOODE, Forum member from Estonia, in response, pointed out the “disappointing tendency” of the Russian Federation to blacklist several indigenous non-governmental organizations, which were accused of being “foreign agents”. He expressed concern that such labelling resulted in damage to those organizations’ reputation, created additional bureaucratic hurdles and could result in financial penalties.
BEATRICE DUNCAN, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), said that promoting the human rights and empowerment of indigenous women formed an essential part of its mandate. UN-Women recognized the tenacity of indigenous women and their significant contributions to moulding and sustaining the future of their communities through a unique sense of identity. Indigenous women also had leadership roles in sustainable resource management, food security and the protection of ancestral lands and language. UN-Women was concerned that indigenous women and girls continued to face significant challenges in their ability to access social services. Despite the important role that they played, their voices and participation in the political economy remained restricted. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development pledged to leave no one behind, which was a promise that needed to be upheld for indigenous women and girls. Addressing historical underinvestment in expanding women and girls capabilities and resources and restricting their marginalization and subordination were indispensable for the achievement of their rights.
NORMA SACTIC, Alianza de Mujeres Indigenas de Centroamerica y Mexico, welcomed consultations by the President of the General Assembly to guarantee indigenous peoples’ representation in United Nations bodies. However, in each country, compliance with indigenous peoples’ human rights had not been implemented. She recommended including indigenous women in plans and public policies that enhanced language and identity of them, to review the legal framework of countries and help decide how to eliminate discrimination. Governments should establish mechanisms that respected indigenous women’s human rights at local, national and regional levels, and develop a budget that considered their needs.
HELENA YÁNEZ LOZA (Ecuador), associating herself with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), said that through a participatory public policy her country had implemented affirmative action, like access to employment, health, economic empowerment and the development of peoples and nationalities which had historically been excluded and discriminated against. Ecuador recognized ancestral indigenous medicine and health so as to protect the country’s diversity, and the family health model was guided by social inclusion, interculturality and generational approaches. The national education system was in keeping with the rights of peoples and nationalities and incorporated the knowledge of several cultures. Ecuador also had created five national councils for equality, among which was a council for peoples and nationalities. Afro-Ecuadorian and indigenous people had joined the foreign service.
SANDRA DEL PINO, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), said her agency was aware of the need for intercultural approaches to health services. Policies, plans and programmes on health needed to respect the differentiated needs of populations and ensure the right to non-discrimination in medical services. PAHO had provided thematic information on the rights of indigenous peoples and reiterated the need for different mechanisms and agencies working on indigenous issues to coordinate joint action with successful results. Her agency would continue to work on reducing maternal and child mortality in indigenous communities, as well as the prevalence of tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Mental health with a special focus on children and adolescents was a priority for PAHO. The impact of climate change was another key issue, and in that regard, PAHO highlighted the need to strengthen cooperation with other agency and community leaders to address that challenge.
AMY KALILI, Mokuola Honua, said her organization recommended that the Forum further examine, investigate and identify specific strategies for the implementation of the recommendations that would be officially adopted from the International Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous Languages. Efforts should be taken to assess what States have done to promote language efforts and identify and articulate specific measures States should take to effectively implement the recommendations being put forth from the Expert Group. The Mokuola Honua applauded the Permanent Forum for its initiatives on the critical issue of language protection and for keeping the topic in the forefront of discussion.
THERESE R. CANTADA (Philippines) said her country promoted the full participation of indigenous peoples in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of policies and programmes that directly affected their development, noting that there were 2,708 indigenous representatives in local legislative and special bodies. Of the 4.4 million household that benefitted from a cash-transfer programme, 570,056 were indigenous households. The Government was committed to providing access to an inclusive and culture-based education to every indigenous learner through the national indigenous peoples’ education policy framework. Recognizing the right to culturally-rooted and responsive basic education, the Department of Education in 2015 provided guidance to schools as they engaged with indigenous communities.
JITEN YUMNAM, Centre for Organizational Research and Advocacy, Manipur, said north-eastern India had been long afflicted by armed conflict stemming from indigenous peoples’ rejection of the forced merger of Manipur with India in 1949. The promulgation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 had led to the full deployment of India’s armed forces in Manipur and derogation of non-derogable human rights. Efforts to complete the Mapithel Dam, the proposal to build a 1,500 hydroelectric project and signing of memoranda of understanding to build four mega dams in 2014 — without his peoples’ free, prior and informed consent — undermined their self-determination. He pressed the Forum to urge India to recognize his people’s right to self-determination, repeal the Special Powers Act and enforce a moratorium on all mega-development projects that failed to consider the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities in Manipur.
ANA SILVIA RODRÍGUEZ ABASCAL (Cuba), associating herself with CELAC, said that historically, indigenous peoples were subjected to serious violations of their rights, including genocide, discrimination and the pillaging of their resources. She recalled that the indigenous population of Cuba was exterminated over several decades after the colonization of the island. The adoption of the Declaration was a historic victory for indigenous peoples in recognition of their ancestral rights. Cuba supported the adoption of the General Assembly resolution that urged Governments and the United Nations system to develop and implement appropriate measures, plans, projects, programmes and other concrete measures to protect the well-being of indigenous peoples. Cuba supported the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination, freely choose their political status and achieve economic, social and cultural development. Protection had been made in the establishment of the human rights of indigenous peoples, although they continued to face daily violations of those rights. Denial of the right to ancestral territories was a regrettable reality in many parts of the world.
HJALMAR DAHL, Inuit Circumpolar Council, speaking on behalf of the Indigenous Arctic Caucus, said the complex range of tasks undertaken by the Forum could hinder the effective implementation of the Declaration. The Forum should be strengthened by encouraging more States to participate in its sessions, especially as they had committed to consider the Forum’s recommendations. One important goal was to enhance equality and prevent discrimination in the mandate areas. The Forum should develop, promote and protect indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. Indigenous peoples had a right to free, prior and informed consent, which should be respected by States and others with commercial interests in indigenous territory, land and resources. The Forum could use the follow-up to the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to strengthen its own work in its six mandate areas.
Mr. BARINOV, Russian Federation, said that his country had the right to defend itself from foreign financing that came into the country for political purposes. The Russian Federation was far from the first country to have a foreign agent law in place, he recalled. That law was initially adopted in the United States and similar laws currently existed in many other countries around the world.
Mr. LOODE said that the non-governmental organizations in question that had been shut down in the Russian Federation had not engaged in politics — they were focused exclusively on indigenous issues.
FLORINA LOPEZ, Network of Indigenous Women’s Biodiversity Latin America and the Caribbean, drew attention to chemicals used in illegal mining, urging that the Forum press WHO to take action with regard to indigenous peoples who had in their blood mercury and other substances that posed serious health risks. WHO should investigate contamination of water, fish and other resources. Focusing on illegal mining in the Venezuelan Amazon region, especially in San Juan de Manapiare, indigenous peoples had suffered attacks for having denounced such activities. “This situation is not new”, she said, noting that in 2012, 92 per cent of indigenous women tested for mercury presented higher levels than the 2 milligrams per kilogram defined as safe by WHO. The results were shown to several State bodies without response. She urged the Forum to press WHO to help indigenous peoples affected by that situation and to push States to stop illegal mining.
KARA-KYS ARAKCHAA, Forum member from the Russian Federation, urged understanding what the Forum meant to States and whether Governments were heeding its recommendations. It spoke to its effectiveness as an advisory body. Indeed, the Forum’s recommendations were being heeded. Participants had discussed the Forum’s six mandates, with some indigenous peoples discussing issues that persisted in their countries, and others discussing achievements.
She said that she had always drawn attention to the positive aspects in indigenous peoples’ lives around the world, especially on issues of self-governance, lands, education, language and culture. There were positive measures to be noted in order for indigenous peoples to move forward. She cited a conference in Guatemala, held in April, in that context. “Many of our issues might take years to address,” she said, stressing that States were not always ready to tackle them immediately and that she had visited Crimea to see what was happening with the Tatars among other peoples.
MARIA E. CHOQUE QUISPE, Forum member from Bolivia, said that the subject of health needed to be referred to in the context of spiritual health. Indigenous peoples had yet to heal from a “great wound” caused by colonization. Indigenous peoples needed to have their dignity restored. Biological diversity was being lost due to climate change. On education, valuing the identities and cultures of indigenous peoples was critical. Traditional knowledge should be included in sustainable development objectives, although there wasn’t a specific reference to indigenous peoples in the Sustainable Development Goals. Hearing the voices of young people could serve as inspiration, as they were the present and future and would continue to be challenged.
TAI PELLICIER, United Confederation of Taino People, said that indigenous peoples continued to remain invisible in both the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals and efforts to address climate change. The Taino people were prepared to defend their lands. She noted widespread environmental damage had been done to their traditional territories, some of which had resulted in long term health challenges. Biochemical companies were conducting experiments that did not meet even the most basic health standards. Private interests were compromising lands that were known to contain ancestral heritage artefacts. Education systems that mirrored boarding schools were still in place, with the goal of stripping indigenous peoples of their native cultures.