Indigenous people: Challenges facing
the international community

Growing public interest in indigenous people and a long process of international negotiations involving indigenous organizations prompted the international community to proclaim 1993 as the International Year of the World's Indigenous People, and then the period 1995-2004 as the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, to focus on issues of concern to indigenous people. In addition, 9 August has since 1995 been celebrated as the International Day of the World's Indigenous People.

Each of these steps has been important in the struggle for the recognition of the rights of indigenous people. These steps are all the more meaningful with the forthcoming anniversary of a landmark human rights document adopted by the United Nations 50 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration recognizes the inherent dignity of every human being and sets forth in detail the rights to be enjoyed by all "without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status". Within the framework of the World Public Information Campaign, launched by the United Nations in 1988, the Universal Declaration has been translated into more than 40 indigenous languages and widely disseminated among indigenous communities.

The United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) also focuses attention on the importance of human rights education for all, including indigenous people, in view of the problems encountered by indigenous communities.

The United Nations officially acknowledged indigenous people in 1982, when the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, a special forum of human rights experts, was established in Geneva for representatives of indigenous organizations and Governments to exchange views on a wide range of issues.

The main areas of concern to indigenous people are reflected in the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people now being discussed in a special working group especially set up for this purpose. The drafting process, begun in 1985, has yet to yield a final document by the international community. Participants in this process have included indigenous people from the world over, as well as government representatives.

Marginalization and exclusion from the mainstream political, economic and social spheres prompted indigenous people to lobby and have their concerns included in the final documents of recent United Nations Conferences, including the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1-12 June 1992, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), the World Conference on Human Rights (14-25 June 1993, Vienna, Austria), the International Conference on Population and Development (5-13 September 1994, Cairo, Egypt), the World Summit for Social Development (6-12 March 1995, Copenhagen, Denmark) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (4-15 September 1995, Beijing, China). At all of these global meetings, issues of importance to indigenous people around the world were discussed. In all of the final documents adopted at the Conferences, Governments were requested to implement recommendations relating to indigenous people and to adopt national legislation to protect and promote their rights. Educational and awareness-raising programmes were also stressed.

Achieving significant improvements in the lives of peoples who have endured centuries of exploitation and marginalization is a tremendous challenge facing Governments and the international community. The International Decade of the World's Indigenous People is to serve as a time-frame to assess indigenous people's needs and to accelerate the correction of situations in which indigenous people are at a disadvantage. The Decade also offers a framework for the launching of activities and the promotion of progress for indigenous people. It is an opportunity to bring about tangible improvements in the daily lives of indigenous communities.

The Decade: An opportunity to redress the situation

The International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, launched on 9 December 1994, was proclaimed by the General Assembly in its resolution 48/163 of 21 December 1993. Under the theme "Indigenous People: Partnership in Action", the Decade offers an opportunity to strengthen further the partnership established between indigenous people and the international community, and between indigenous people and States. This is expected to be a time to mobilize action to redress negative aspects introduced into indigenous communities by years of colonization and marginalization.

The main goal of the Decade is the strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, health, culture and education.

The International Decade of the World's Indigenous People is an opportunity to take up the challenge of alleviating the situation of indigenous populations and to intensify efforts to respond to their legitimate demands and needs. In this respect, it is important to achieve the following goals:

Indigenous people and issues

Poverty: Poverty tends to have a disproportionately severe effect on indigenous people. They tend to be among the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable and the most deprived groups of society.

* A recent report published by the Centro Latinoamericano de Demografía (CELADE) in Chile gave a dim view of the conditions of indigenous people in South America. It states that 79 per cent of the indigenous people in Peru are poor, and more than half live in extreme poverty.

* In Guatemala, 87 per cent of indigenous people are below the poverty line and 61 per cent are below the line of extreme poverty. People in Guatemala whose monthly income is below US$ 60 are considered poor by national standards. The extreme poverty line corresponds to a monthly income of $30 per capita. In Guatemala, most indigenous people do not have access to safe drinking water, sanitation or electricity. Less than one third of indigenous homes have running water, compared to half of non-indigenous homes.

Percentage of population below the poverty line
Country Indigenous populations Non-indigenous populations
Bolivia 64.3 48.1
Guatemala 86.6 53.9
Mexico 80.6 17.9
Peru 79.0 49.7

[Source: Centro Latinoamericano de Demografía (CELADE)]

Lack of basic health services: Indigenous communities are often deprived of basic health infrastructures.

* In Ecuador, a high proportion of indigenous children die of malnutrition or of respiratory and intestinal infections that are easily curable diseases.

* In Central Australia, 40 per cent of Aboriginal children are hospitalized with acute respiratory illness in the first two years of their lives. The rate of infant mortality in Australian indigenous communities is about three times the national average. According to a report published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, diabetes is directly responsible for 5 per cent of all Aboriginal deaths, as opposed to 2 per cent for non-Aboriginals.

* According to the World Health Organization, in the indigenous populations of Australia, North America and Oceania there is a high prevalence of obesity and non-communicable diseases, especially cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

* In New Zealand, Maori males are twice as likely as non-Maori males to be affected by heart disease, pneumonia and influenza, chronic respiratory disease and infections of the skin.

* In many countries, uncontrolled industrial development has taken a serious toll on the health of indigenous people and has caused severe environmental problems. As a consequence of industry, water is highly polluted, fish are scarce and indigenous people suffer from malnutrition and various diseases.

Low level of education: Most educational systems available to indigenous children do not take into account the traditional and cultural values of indigenous people. This has contributed to very high illiteracy rates among indigenous communities. Moreover, in general indigenous people have less access to mainstream education than does the population at large.

* In Bolivia, schooling levels of indigenous people are three years less than for the non-indigenous population.

* In Australia, school participation rates for Aboriginals decline significantly after age 14, going from 98 per cent at 14 to 31 per cent at 17. Nearly half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and older have had no formal education or have not reached year 10 grade levels (US tenth grade).

* An estimated 43 per cent of Mexican Indians can neither read nor write, and 58 per cent of their five-year-olds do not go to school.

Non-protection of intellectual and cultural property rights: Indigenous people have expressed concern that the knowledge they have gathered over centuries has been exploited commercially without their agreement.

* They enjoy hardly any of the huge profits made by companies in the selling of pharmaceutical products derived from medicinal plants discovered by indigenous people.

* Cultural artifacts have been taken without permission from indigenous people and displayed in museums, in violation of their beliefs. One recent controversy arose with the display at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., of the preserved remains of a teenage Incan girl, who had been sacrificed on an Andean mountain top in Peru 500 years ago.

Unemployment: Indigenous communities generally suffer from a high rate of unemployment.

* According to the International Labour Organization, unemployment among Canadian indigenous people ranges from 35 to 75 per cent, and even reaches 100 per cent in some communities.

* In Australia, according to a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survey, unemployment rates of indigenous communities in 1994 were well above national averages: nearly 38 per cent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander labour force was unemployed, compared to 9 per cent of the overall labour force.

Human rights: For centuries, the basic human rights of indigenous people have been violated in many ways.

* Indigenous people's rights were violated when they were forcibly removed from their lands, and when they were subjected to cultural genocide.

* In various parts of the world a policy of assimilation was imposed on them. This was the case in Australia, where mixed-race children were taken away from their native families and put in foster homes or orphanages where western culture was imposed on them.

* In the United States, many native Americans have been living on impoverished reservations for decades. In Brazil, greed for the rich mines located on indigenous lands drove gold-miners to invade Yanomami territory, killing many of the Indians and exposing them to diseases which proved fatal because the Yanomami were not immune to them.

* During the Chiapas uprising in Mexico, indigenous people were indiscriminately the victims of human rights abuses on the part of both the military and the rebels.

Land and resources: Indigenous people have a particular relationship to the land and have been resisting relocation in some countries.

* In most cases, the rich mineral deposits on their lands have been exploited and depleted of their wealth by Governments and multinational corporations.

* Indigenous people have been trying to negotiate with national authorities in order to regain possession of their ancestral lands and sacred sites. In some cases successful agreements have been reached. After more than 20 years of negotiations, the Nisga'a of British Columbia signed a treaty with the Canadian Government that would transfer land and resource rights to them.

* In Argentina, Indian leaders signed an agreement with the Government which guarantees legal transfer of 600,000 hectares of land to Indians in the Chaco area of northern Argentina.

* In other cases, efforts are under way to address the issue of land claims and secure the land rights of indigenous people. According to a representative of the Brazilian Government, demarcation of indigenous land has been the Government's main priority as a means of guaranteeing land rights of indigenous people.

Self-determination: Indigenous populations argue that they have the right to self-determination, to be able to determine freely their political status and consequently to pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

* Constructive dialogue between the Danish Government and indigenous representatives led to the adoption, in 1979, of the Home Rule Act, which granted the Inuit of Greenland important autonomy for domestic issues without disintegrating the territorial unity of Denmark.

* However, many States are reluctant to deal with calls for self-determination and fear that demands of autonomy on the part of indigenous groups might lead to national disintegration. In some parts of the world these calls are pressing and have led to uprising. This was the case in Chiapas, Mexico, where autonomy was the battle cry of the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

Draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and despite all the achievements by the United Nations in the field of human rights, much remains to be done to address human rights violations that are still taking place around the world. The indigenous people feel that their rights should be addressed in a document that will take into consideration their particular condition. All of the concerns and aspirations of indigenous people are presently being articulated in the draft declaration of the rights of indigenous people. The Working Group on Indigenous Populations, composed of five experts, has been working on this draft since 1985. In 1993, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations completed its elaboration of the draft declaration, and the following year sent it to Governments for comments.

The draft is now being discussed in an open-ended inter-sessional working group, set up by Commission on Human Rights resolution 1995/32 of 3 March 1995. The working group on the draft declaration has held three meetings: the first meeting took place in Geneva from 20 November to 1 December 1995, the second from 21 October to 1 November 1996, and the third from 27 October to 7 November 1997. As was the case in the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, this working group provides government representatives and representatives of indigenous and non-governmental organizations with an opportunity openly to present their views and engage in consultations and deliberations over the different articles of the draft declaration.

The draft declaration acknowledges the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people and asks States to respect and honour any legal instrument agreed upon by both parties. The draft declaration emphasizes, among other things:

Major accomplishments of the International Decade would be the adoption of the draft declaration by the United Nations General Assembly and, as reiterated in General Assembly resolution 50/157, the establishment of a permanent forum for indigenous people within the United Nations. The recommendation of such a forum was made in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in June 1993. Discussions are still under way to determine the mandate of the permanent forum, its membership, structure and funding. The purpose of the forum would be to create a permanent arena where indigenous people could raise and discuss with Governments matters of interest to them.

Programme of activities to be undertaken by the major actors

A programme of activities for the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People was adopted by the General Assembly to allow different actors involved--including the United Nations system, Governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations and other interested parties--to plan activities in order to raise awareness of the issues of concern to indigenous people. These activities were to be carried out in different ways.

Activities of the Coordinator for the Decade and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at Geneva

* Encourage the development of partnership projects in association with Governments to address specific regional or thematic issues bringing together Governments, indigenous people and appropriate United Nations agencies;

* Create a fellowship programme, in collaboration with the Advisory Services of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Governments, to assist indigenous people wishing to gain experience in the different branches of the Office and in other parts of the United Nations system;

* Organize meetings on relevant themes of concern to indigenous people with indigenous participation;

* Develop, in collaboration with Governments, training programmes on human rights for indigenous people, including the preparation of relevant training materials, when possible in indigenous languages;

* Encourage the development of projects and programmes, in collaboration with Governments, and taking into account the views of indigenous people and the appropriate United Nations agencies, for support by the Voluntary Fund for the Decade.

United Nations public information activities

* Publish in indigenous languages the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights conventions and, upon its adoption, the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people. Consider the use of audio-visual material for this purpose. Consider also the involvement of indigenous experts and their own information networks to disseminate information about the International Decade;

* Prepare, in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, information about indigenous people for distribution to the general public.

Operational activities of the United Nations system

* Establish focal points for indigenous issues in all appropriate organizations of the United Nations system;

* Urge Governments to ensure that the programmes and budgets of relevant intergovernmental organizations give priority and devote sufficient resources to further the aims of the Decade, and request that regular reports on the action taken be submitted to the governing body or executive council of each organization.

* Prepare, publish and disseminate a manual containing practical information for indigenous people on the operations and procedures of United Nations agencies;

* Encourage Governments to establish appropriate mechanisms and practices to ensure the participation of indigenous people in the design and implementation of national and regional programmes of concern to them;

* Hold consultations with Governments to examine, with national committees and development agencies, possibilities of cooperation in the activities of the Decade;

* Hold consultations of all interested parties on the themes of human rights, development, the environment, health and education, and culture, with a view to elaborating programmes in these areas.

Activities of regional organizations

* Hold regional meetings on indigenous issues with existing regional organizations with a view to strengthening coordination, taking advantage of the machinery of the United Nations system and promoting the direct and active participation of indigenous people of the different regions in collaboration with Governments;

* Develop training courses and technical assistance programmes for indigenous people in areas such as project design and management, environment, health and education, and promote the exchange of skills and experiences of indigenous people from different regions;

* Encourage regional organizations to draw up regional instruments for the promotion and protection of indigenous people in the framework of their own structures, and promote existing regional instruments.

Activities of Member States

* Establish national committees for the Decade or similar mechanisms, to include indigenous people, all relevant departments and other interested parties duly convened by Governments, to mobilize public support for the various activities connected with the Decade;

* Intensify coordination and communication at the national level between relevant ministries, agencies and regional and local authorities by establishing focal points or other mechanisms for coordination and dissemination of information;

* Develop, in collaboration with indigenous communities, national plans for the Decade, including main objectives and targets, fixing quantitative outcomes and taking into account the need for resources and possible sources of financing;

* Consider ratification and implementation of the International Labour Organization Convention (No. 169) on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and other international and regional instruments in close consultation with the indigenous organizations of each country;

* Recognize the existence, identity and rights of indigenous people through constitutional reforms or the adoption of new laws, when appropriate, to improve their legal status and guarantee their economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights.

Activities of organizations of indigenous people

* Establish an information network which can be linked to the Coordinator for the Decade and facilitate communications between the United Nations system, relevant government departments and indigenous communities;

* Establish and support indigenous schools and university-level institutions and collaborate with the relevant United Nations agencies; participate in the revision of school texts and the contents of programmes of study in order to eliminate discriminatory content and promote the development of indigenous cultures and, where appropriate, in indigenous languages and scripts; develop indigenous curricula for schools and research institutions;

* Establish and promote networks of indigenous journalists and launch indigenous periodicals at the regional and international levels.

Activities of non-governmental organizations and other interested parties, including educational establishments, the media and business

* Cooperate with indigenous organizations, communities and people in the planning of activities for the Decade;

* Create radio and television centres in indigenous regions when appropriate and in accordance with national legislation to provide information on the problems and proposals of indigenous people and to improve communications between indigenous communities;

* Promote indigenous cultures with due respect for intellectual property rights through the publication of books, the production of compact discs and the organization of various artistic and cultural events which enhance knowledge of and serve to develop indigenous cultures and establish indigenous cultural and documentation centres.

The challenge

The success of the International Decade will depend on the means made available for the implementation of national development programmes directed at these improvements. This requires the willingness of national authorities to improve cooperation on indigenous issues and to adopt national legislation recognizing the rights of indigenous people and the participation of indigenous people in the planning and implementation of national activities to promote the goals of the Decade.

As Rigoberta Menchú of Guatemala, a Mayan Indian who won the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting the human rights of indigenous people, declared: "The Decade is the hope that it is possible to establish new relationships based on mutual respect and recognition."

The fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a special opportunity for the international community to reflect on the progress made in order to improve the lives of the disadvantaged and to take effective measures to face the challenges lying ahead. Special efforts could be made to improve the well-being of the indigenous populations and to bring into reality the basic rights and fundamental freedoms spelt out in the Universal Declaration, to be enjoyed by all humanity and not only by a few of us. In this regard, the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights are of utmost importance.

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/1937/B--December 1997

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