24 May 2002
PRESS CONFERENCE ON INDIGENOUS FORUM
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues had enabled people who had been left out in the cold and dark to come into a warm well-lighted house to discuss things that mattered to them, and not be afraid, the Chairman of the new Indigenous Forum told correspondents today at a Headquarters press conference, on the final day of the first session.
Ole Henrik Magga, an indigenous-nominated expert from Norway and Chairman of the Forum, was joined by Willie Littlechild of the United States, Rapporteur. He said that a step had been taken towards the full and equal participation of indigenous peoples within the United Nations family and towards the realization of their right to self-determination as a people, he said.
They were joined by two government-nominated experts, Njuma Eckundanayo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ida Nicolaisen of Denmark. The 16-expert member Forum is a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council and considered a breakthrough achievement for indigenous peoples, who were being heard for the first time at such a high level at the United Nations.
Leading up to the conclusion this afternoon of the first annual session, Mr. Magga briefed correspondents on the contents of the final report. Of key importance in that first report was the establishment of a permanent Secretariat for the Forum. So far, it had only been through the help of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the members had been able to prepare the session.
He said it had been difficult to develop a real work plan, since the Forum had only been given a budget for the first session and the one planned for next year. Nevertheless, the report would stress the need to gather information from the United Nations system to promote coordination. Communications with others in the system was also crucial, as well as data collection about indigenous organizations.
The report would also seek to evolve a United Nations publication once every three years on the status of the world's indigenous peoples. Rights in the areas of health, intellectual property, human rights, genetic resources, among others, would also be included in the report. And, the Forum would urge countries to ratify certain international instruments, such as the International Labour Organization Convention.
Access to educational systems and language learning was also a prime consideration, as well as the preservation of the environment, upon which the lives of indigenous peoples depended. In the report, the Forum would invite coordination and cooperation among the partners in the United Nations agencies in those and other areas of concern. It also wished to see the appointment of a special rapporteur.
Ms. Nicolaisen highlighted data collection as topping the list now, since much information was still missing, including exactly where indigenous peoples
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lived. Members would seek to bring a holistic perspective to their work, reflecting the way indigenous peoples looked at the world. The indigenous perspective must be integrated in the development of guidelines, policies and programmes.
The Forum was working to bring the views and concerns of indigenous peoples into the United Nations and into governments, but ultimately it sought to enrich the way the world worked, she added. As an expert-body, it was important to have inter-sessional time to work, she added. At the first session, alone, the Forum had received some 9,000 recommendations.
Ms. Ekundanayo said note would be taken in the report of the problems in identifying indigenous peoples around the world. She praised the United Nations, which had sought to break through the disregard and indifference long confronting those peoples. They had their own way of life, which until now had been rejected and misunderstood. United Nations' efforts would enable indigenous peoples to "humanize the universe".
She said she "ran all over Africa" in an effort to achieve the Forum's mandate. First, she had tried to learn the number of indigenous peoples living on the continent, many in remote and unknown areas. She wished to shed light on their identity, with an emphasis on their health needs. Indigenous peoples were an ancient peoples that had survived adverse circumstances because of their system of health. Reconciling their traditional health system with the world's more modern one were among the critical issues.
Mr. Littlechild said that, as the Forum was welcomed again today by the Secretary-General into the United Nations family, he was reminded of the importance of recognizing that indigenous peoples had a lot to offer the world. Now, there was an opportunity to contribute to humankind and he had welcomed it.
Asked if members could explain in a nutshell the key achievements of the past two weeks, Mr. Magga said that was the first time that such a broad Forum had been brought together to work on indigenous issues of all kinds. That had been the main outcome of the meeting –- that indigenous peoples from all over the world had found a welcoming meeting place and a channel at the United Nations. "Now we have been accepted, at least in principle, as equals or nearly so," he said.
"Don't ask too much of us" in terms of concrete achievements, he added, reminding correspondents that the Forum's role was to advise the Economic and Social Council. Prior to that, indigenous peoples had been outsiders. Still, many lived in difficult situations in many countries, and had been unable to attend the meeting. At least the channel had been opened.
Mr. Littlechild agreed that indigenous peoples had taken a step towards full and equal participation within the United Nations family. That had been a very significant step of the last two weeks.
In the long run, said Ms. Nicolaisen, their integration here would make the world a much richer and more peaceful place. One could not underestimate the importance of that. It had taken millions of years to develop knowledge systems,
insights, art, myth, literature, and the world had been about to "throw this
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overboard". From that perspective, she felt she was witnessing something truly historic.
Replying to a question about the problems being encountered in reaching consensus on the outcome document, Mr. Magga said there had not been enough time to prepare the formal report. The Forum members had come together and listened to hundreds of people with the aim of clarifying the issues. He had not seen any real political or substantive difficulties, only a problem of time.
Another correspondent asked about the rights of indigenous people to their own genetic material. Mr. Magga said there was a concern in many indigenous communities, including in his own in Norway, that genes from everything -- from plants and animals and human beings -- were of interest to the mainstream community. For example, without asking people, their blood samples were taken and used in various ways, including for genetic research.
Those were among the concerns of many indigenous communities, he added. Blood samples had been taken from his community by medical doctors who kept the material or even sold it to international research companies. In their hands, that might be very valuable material. He had official reports, at least from Norway, that such samples were being taken and used in ways of which people would not approve.
Asked about the economic status of indigenous peoples, Mr. Magga said that in Norway, which was a rich and modern country, indigenous peoples were at the bottom economically. That was probably also true for the Aboriginal people of Australia and the American Indians in many parts of the United States and Canada. On the issue of land rights, that had been discussed in Norway for 25 years, yet the question still had not been resolved.
Mr. Littlechild said that indigenous peoples from the far reaches of the world were held together by their spiritual relationship. But, there had been "theft of our spirit in many ways" -- from genetic material to land and natural resources -- which had had a very negative impact.
Adding to that, Ms. Ekundanayo said that the art of indigenous peoples could be found in libraries and museums all around the world, yet "we never gave that away". For example, in Africa, multinational corporations had "set up shop" to exploit various natural resources, and indigenous peoples now were facing malnutrition as a result. There were also displaced populations, including through the creation of national parks. One could sense that indigenous peoples were no longer masters of their own homes. "You could die of starvation in your own country," she said. Indigenous peoples were never consulted about anything. Instead, they were told that had to integrate or assimilate, which was tantamount to disappearing.
Asked to explain the clothing they were wearing, Mr. Littlechild said his suede suit had belonged to his grandfather, but was taken from his family and lost for 35 years. The headdress, his own, was a chief's war bonnet. He had wanted to honour his grandfather by wearing his outfit. Mr. Magga said his outfit was typical of what was worn in his village in northern Norway, only it was usually made from wool (it was too warm here) and less colorful.
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