Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues                        HR/4599

First Session                                               21 May 2002

13th and 14th Meetings (AM & PM)






Proscription of Traditional Languages,

Usurpation of Lands, Genocide among Issues Raised



Representatives of indigenous peoples from around the world voiced particular and collective grievances in morning and afternoon meetings today, as the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues continued its historic first session with an open debate on human rights issues.


From Alaska to Baja California to the San Andreas Islands of Colombia, from the Saami region of Scandinavia to Siberia to the Maluccas of Indonesia, and from across Africa and Australia, such representatives spoke of abuses ranging from proscription of traditional languages to usurpation of lands to genocide, while suggesting means for the new Forum to promote their common rights in a draft Declaration and throughout the United Nations system.  Representatives of some United Nations Member States were also present to listen and contribute their perspectives.


A common theme that ran through the discussion today was that general notions of human rights, as well as existing human rights instruments, could serve as a framework for indigenous rights.  However, specific indigenous rights needed to be spelled out, especially concerning matters of land, environment and language.  The right to land and traditional resources, it was said, was the basic condition for continued existence of indigenous peoples.


In that regard, groups representing hunters, gatherers and traditional farmers across the continent of Africa and the Amazon basin said that those lifestyles were being wiped out, as companies and governments utilized traditional lands for the extraction of resources and for use in grazing.  Other groups spoke of lands being confiscated for hydro-electric projects or political gifts or ruined through pollution.


The political side of human rights, it was said, was self-determination, and the existing bases of such political rights for indigenous peoples were treaties with States.  The representative of the Teton Sioux Nation Treaty Council (Native American) said that rights were given by the creator and guaranteed by treaties with the Government.  In political processes of the past centuries, treaties with indigenous peoples had been unilaterally abrogated.  He called for a priority of the Forum to be “treaty rights as human rights”.

Whatever their basis, it was agreed that the Forum must work for a guarantee for rights to all members of indigenous communities, including women and children and other vulnerable individuals.


The Minister of National Minorities of the Russian Federation, and the representatives of Italy, Chile, United States, Norway, Sweden, and Peru also spoke in today’s discussion, expressing their support to the mandate of the Forum, as well as national programmes to protect the rights and identities of their respective indigenous populations.


Chile’s representative, in addition, replied to two organizations which, he said, had falsely accused his country of ethnocide and genocide in its acquisition of lands for a hydro-electric project.  The acquisition had proceeded legally and with the agreement of most of the people involved, he said.  In any case, he said accusations of specific abuses should be delivered, with accompanying proof, to the Human Rights Committee; adjudicating them was not the function of this Forum.


The representative of Italy spoke of his country’s measures to recognize traditional languages and protect traditional products, including cuisine.  The protection of cultural diversity was, he said, an essential part of sustainable development.


Several international institutions and agencies also spoke during the debate today.  The World Bank’s representative described a new development agenda, in which the well-being of all peoples received a greater focus.  The Bank, he said, was now acutely aware of the possible negative impact of development projects; in the 1980s, it adopted 10 “do-no harm policies” to ensure no negative impact on indigenous peoples.  It intended to work closely with the Permanent Forum.  The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialized agency of the United Nations system, spoke of its work in protection of traditional knowledge, genetic resources and folklore.


The mandate of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues is to advise and make recommendations to the Economic and Social Council on economic and social development, culture, human rights, the environment, education and health, as regards indigenous peoples. 


In addition to advising the Council, the Forum has been asked to raise awareness, promote the integration and coordination of activities relating to indigenous issues within the United Nations system, and prepare and disseminate information on indigenous issues.  It will meet once each year for 10 working days.  States, United Nations bodies and organs, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and organizations of indigenous people may participate as observers.  In its first session, working procedures, as well as priorities, are in the process of being determined.


Following today’s discussion of human rights, a dozen non-governmental organizations, as well the representatives of Peru and Mexico, made general statements.


The Permanent Forum will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 22 May, to continue hearing general statements.