Backgrounder 12 May 2002


First Meeting of Permanent Forum High Point of UN Decade

Nearly 1,000 representatives of indigenous people from around the world are attending the historic first session of the new Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, taking place at the United Nations in New York from 13 to 24 May. They will hold a general debate, review the activities of the United Nations system relating to indigenous people, and set out the future work of the new body.

"The Permanent Forum," said Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, "promises to give indigenous peoples a unique voice within the United Nations system, commensurate with the unique problems which many indigenous people still face, but also with the unique contribution they make to the human rights dialogue."

Indigenous people have not before been allowed to represent their own interests directly to any major body of the UN. The Forum will bring new ground, as it will advise and report directly to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) - one of the six main organs of the UN. The new body, which includes eight indigenous experts, will provide a formal setting in which indigenous peoples will be able to participate and communicate directly with governments and civil society. This will help to ensure the full and free participation of indigenous people in all matters of concern to them.

Established in 2000 by the Economic and Social Council, the Permanent Forum is to serve as an advisory body to the Council. Its mandate is to discuss indigenous issues relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. Specifically, it will:

The Forum will meet once a year for ten working days, and submit an annual report to the Council on its activities, including recommendations for approval. The report will also be circulated to UN organs, funds, programmes and agencies, thus furthering dialogue on indigenous issues within the UN system.

The Forum is made up of 16 independent experts - eight nominated by governments and eight appointed by the President of the Council, following consultations with governments on the basis of consultations with indigenous organizations. All members serve for three years, with the possibility of re-election for one additional year.

The Council established the Forum on 28 July 2000, by resolution E/RES/2002/22. It was the culmination of a process started at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, when a proposal to create a permanent forum focused on indigenous issues was introduced. Its establishment became one of the central objectives of the Programme of Activities for the International Decade of the World's Indigenous people, 1995-2004.

Subsequently, two UN workshops were held to discuss the possibility of a permanent forum -- in Copenhagen in 1995, and in Santiago de Chile in 1997. A review conducted by the Secretary-General supported the creation of the forum. In 1999, an ad hoc working group of the Commission on Human Rights met in Geneva to elaborate proposals for the body. A second ad hoc working group met the following year to finalize a proposal for the Commission on Human Rights. The Commission in 2000 recommended to the Economic and Social Council that it set up the Permanent Forum.


The world's indigenous people

It is estimated that there are at least 5,000 indigenous groups composed of 300 million people living in more than 70 countries on five continents. Their way of life, livelihood, religion and culture are inextricably intertwined with and dependent on the traditional environment in which they live.

In most countries, indigenous people are not members of the dominant, majority groups. Although they may consider themselves "nations", they have no status as States and often have no voice through their governments. In many parts of the world, the cultures of indigenous peoples are precariously balanced on the edge of extinction.

Growing international awareness of the critical situation of indigenous people and their invaluable contribution to the survival of humankind led the United Nations to proclaim the International Decade for the World's Indigenous People.

When the UN General Assembly proclaimed the International Decade with its theme "Indigenous people, partnership in action", it specified that a primary goal was strengthening international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health.

In adopting the Programme of Activities for the International Decade in 1995, the General Assembly recognized the value and diversity of the cultures and forms of social organization of indigenous people. It also recognized that the development of indigenous people would contribute to the socio-economic, cultural and environmental advancement of the countries in which they live.

Programme of Activities

The Programme of Activities for the International Decade sets out the specific activities to be undertaken by the international community. These include:

United Nations Conferences

Protection of the heritage and culture of indigenous societies was incorporated in the goals set by the international community at the ground-breaking conferences of the 1990s on such issues as environment, human rights, population and development, social development and women. For the first time, indigenous voices were heard at such forums; the outcome of each conference included recommendations on issues of concern to indigenous peoples.

The Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted together with Agenda 21 by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, recognized that indigenous peoples play a vital role in environmental management and development. It recommended that States support their identity, culture and interests and enable their participation in achieving sustainable development. It urged governments to take indigenous people and their communities into consideration when undertaking environmental activities. States were asked to foster the knowledge and the traditional methods of indigenous people relevant to the conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of biological resources.

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, recognized that indigenous people make a unique contribution to society. It reaffirmed the commitment of the international community to the economic, social and cultural well-being of indigenous people and their "enjoyment of the fruits of sustainable development". It recommended that the General Assembly proclaim the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, and that it consider establishing a permanent forum for indigenous people. It also requested that the Working Group on Indigenous Populations complete its drafting of the declaration on the rights of indigenous people, begun in 1985. The Working Group did so in 1993.

The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, adopted in Cairo in 1994, acknowledged that the situation of indigenous people, which is often characterized by discrimination and oppression, has in many instances become institutionalized in laws and structures of governance. It listed specific needs and concerns of indigenous people and their communities, and stated that governments and other institutions in society should address these needs, including primary health care and reproductive health services. Governments were asked to consider the concerns of indigenous people when formulating population and development policies.

The Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the 1995 World Summit for Social Development, included a framework for action to "recognize and support indigenous people in their pursuit of economic and social development, with full respect for their identity, traditions, forms of social organization and cultural values". It called on governments to provide an environment that enables indigenous people to participate in the social, economic and political life of their countries. It also expressed a commitment to ensure equal access to quality education that is responsive to the needs, aspirations and cultures of indigenous people, as well as their full access to primary health care. In addition, it called for the full participation of indigenous people in the labour force.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 recognized the need to ensure full respect for the human rights of indigenous women. It encouraged the participation of indigenous women in the Working Group elaborating the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people.

The Durban Declaration and Plan of Action, adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, urged States and international financial and development institutions to examine how their policies and practices affect indigenous people; to ensure that their policies and practices contribute to the eradication of racism through the participation of indigenous peoples in development projects; and to consult with indigenous people on any matter that may affect their physical, spiritual or cultural integrity.

Work on the Declaration

Finalization of the draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a major goal of the Decade. Efforts in this direction began in the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1985, when it drafted the preliminary wording of seven principles. In 1994, the draft declaration was adopted by the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. The draft was submitted to the Commission on Human Rights, which established an open-ended inter-sessional working group to continue consideration. The working group meets once a year.

More than 200 indigenous organizations participate in the working group. While some governments support the draft Declaration, others are opposed to many of its provisions or, at least, to many of the details those provisions contain. While not legally binding on States, and therefore not imposing legal obligations, the Declaration would carry considerable moral force.

Once adopted, the draft will be submitted to the General Assembly for consideration and adoption. The Commission on Human Rights has set the end of the International Decade, 2004, as a target for adopting the Declaration; the General Assembly has affirmed that adopting the Declaration is a major objective of the Decade.

The Declaration would take existing international human rights instruments a step further by addressing the needs and concerns of indigenous peoples as well as ensuring the protection of their human rights. It would address such contentious issues as self-determination and land rights. Other elements are designed to protect the diversity of cultures.

An important distinction made by the draft Declaration is the protection of the right of indigenous people to own land collectively. Confusion surrounding land ownership has been the source of a great deal of misunderstanding over the last few centuries. It has contributed to the loss of a large portion of indigenous lands, and continues to be a reason for some unjust and outmoded legal concepts.

In its current form, the draft Ddeclaration establishes the rights of indigenous people to the protection of their cultural property and identity, including the rights to language, religion, education and health. It provides for the protection of cultural property, such as art and science, and the right of indigenous people to their agricultural knowledge and tools. It advocates that indigenous people should receive just remuneration for their medicinal knowledge, which drug companies have used for profit without any financial benefit accruing to indigenous people, as well as for other cultural property.

When adopted, the draft declaration will likely be the most comprehensive statement of the rights of indigenous peoples ever developed, establishing collective rights to a degree unprecedented in international human rights law.

UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations

Since it was established in 1982, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations has had two formal tasks: reviewing national developments pertaining to the promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples; and developing international standards concerning the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Working Group-a subsidiary organ of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights-has undertaken several studies, including one dealing with the relationship of indigenous peoples to their lands, assigned in 1996 to Erica-Irene Daes, Chairperson of the Working Group and Special Rapporteur.

Other Working Group studies have dealt with health and indigenous people; environment, land and sustainable development; education and language; and indigenous children and youth. In 2001, the Working Group examined the theme "Indigenous peoples and their right to development, including their right to participate in development affecting them".

The Working Group was established in part because of the watershed study undertaken at the request of the Sub-Commission by José R. Martínez Cobo. His report, Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations, was submitted in five instalments from 1981 to 1984.

Special Rapporteur

In 2001, the Commission on Human Rights decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the situation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people. The Chairperson of the Commission appointed Mr. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a Mexican research professor specialized in indigenous rights, as the Special Rapporteur for a three-year period.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson called the appointment "a landmark in indigenous affairs at the United Nations." The mandate of the Special Rapporteur is:

The work of the Special Rapporteur involves fact-finding missions, and communications with governments with regard to the alleged violations of the human rights of indigenous people. In his first report, issued in February 2002, Dr. Stavenhagen provided an overview of the main human rights issues besetting indigenous people, and set out the agenda for his future activities.

Voluntary Fund for the Decade

When it proclaimed the International Decade, the UN General Assembly established the Voluntary Fund for Decade activities, to accept and administer voluntary contributions -from governments, institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), foundations and individuals - to fund projects and programmes during the Decade.

The Fund assists activities in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health. Applications are reviewed by the Fund's Advisory Group. The Fund has disbursed grants to projects of indigenous organizations and communities. It has also financed the participation of indigenous representatives and experts in workshop and seminars on indigenous issues.

Early in the Decade, the Advisory Group recommended that the High Commissioner for Human Rights set aside resources from the Voluntary Fund to cover the costs of a pilot United Nations Indigenous Fellowship Programme.

Fellowships for indigenous youth

The Fellowship Programme has been a successful part of the International Decade. Beginning in 1997, four or five indigenous persons each year have been awarded six-month fellowships to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

The purpose of the Programme is to give indigenous participants the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills so that they can better assist their organizations and communities. The fellows attend lectures, briefings and seminars. They undertake individual research, individual and group assignments, and practical work at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Labour Organization, and other Geneva-based organizations and institutions. They concentrate on five main areas: the United Nations system; international human rights standards and mechanisms; indigenous rights and issues; the work of the Office of the High Commissioner; and human rights non-governmental organizations. The programme is now part of the regular budget activities of the Office of the High Commissioner.

Journalists Workshops

The United Nations has long been interested in helping to develop indigenous media. Indigenous journalists have been encouraged to attend sessions of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. In 1993, the Department of Public Information ensured that an indigenous journalist was invited to cover the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.

In 1996, the Sub-Commission recommended that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights organize a journalists workshop within the framework of the Decade. At the invitation of the government of Spain, the Workshop for Indigenous Journalists was held in Madrid in January 1998. It was hoped that the workshop would lead to more interaction among the mainstream press, the United Nations and indigenous media, and that it could serve as a springboard for establishing an indigenous media network.

In preparation for the Workshop, certain themes emerged:

The workshop's recommendations focused on two main areas: the training of indigenous journalists and the development of networks. The participants concluded that training and educational activities - such as workshops, scholarships and internships - should be developed to help indigenous journalists improve their skills. Training could also be facilitated through exchange programmes, which could sensitize non-indigenous journalists.

Regarding the establishment of an indigenous media network, it was recommended that the formation of local and national associations, unions or clubs should be encouraged, and that these in turn could relate to other professional journalists' organizations and networks. It was further recommended that databases of both indigenous and non-indigenous media should be established. Other recommendations focused on new technology and special projects, such as the development of an indigenous network on the Internet.

A second workshop, organized by the Department of Public Information and held at UN Headquarters in December 2000, involved more than 50 participants - journalists from indigenous groups, representatives of the mainstream press, academics, experts and United Nations officials. Its aim was to explore ways of promoting the rights and cultures of indigenous peoples through the media and to design a programme of activities to strengthen indigenous media during the International Decade and beyond.

The workshop discussed issues such as the relationship between indigenous peoples and the mainstream media, indigenous peoples and new media, and cooperation between the United Nations and the media. Participants made a number of recommendations for a programme of action to strengthen indigenous media.


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