Permanent Forum should have secretariat, regular funding, UN official says

15 May - The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues should be endowed with a secretariat and with regular funding, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights told the Forum today as it continued its review of activities of the United Nations system relating to indigenous people.

Bertrand Ramcharan, the Deputy High Commissioner, noted that the Permanent Forum was being built "piece by piece" and presented a vision for its future. He said the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was discussing future steps very carefully, and intended to hold wide-ranging consultations on the issues of secretariat and funding.

At the morning session, several observers from indigenous organizations expressed their concerns on a wide range of topics. Addressing the issue of cultural preservation, one speaker said the media were not only a source of information and entertainment for indigenous people, but also an important conduit for indigenous people's youth. Mass media should therefore be more sensitive to the linguistic needs of indigenous children, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) should conduct a study of the needs of indigenous youths with a view to supporting indigenous cultures.

Some speakers stressed the importance of traditional economic systems, which could be threatened by large-scale development projects such as dams, oil fields and mining operations. It was recommended that multinational corporations and aid agencies develop a mechanism for evaluating the impact of development projects, and that a code of conduct be formulated for corporations operating in the lands of indigenous peoples.

One speaker suggested that the Permanent Forum consider issuing a "State of the World's Indigenous Peoples" report on a yearly basis. Also mentioned were the specific problems of indigenous women, many of whom were victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

The observer from Denmark noted the potential of the Permanent Forum to influence the action and thinking of bilateral donors. The real challenge was not to develop good strategies, but rather how to implement them. Member States would be looking for insights from the Permanent Forum to reevaluate their own bilateral donor programmes.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum stressed the importance of understanding a holistic vision of development through full, genuine and thorough participation of indigenous peoples, and expressed deep concern at the absence in the room of most of the government representatives.

Turning to the environment, the Forum heard a representative from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who highlighted areas for action. These included disseminating information to indigenous and non-indigenous peoples; strengthening the link between human rights and environmental principles; strengthening capacity-building in natural resource management; promoting sustainable tourism; and ensuring sustainable mining. UNEP was ready to provide venues for concrete collaboration with indigenous communities.

Addressing the Forum, a representative of the Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity said that 183 States had ratified the Convention, and highlighted several areas of the Secretariat work programme, including effective participation and involvement of indigenous people, intellectual property issues, sustainable use of biodiversity, and codes for the conduct of impact assessments.

Forum members followed up with questions, including on progress made in the area of climate change; lessons learned from the 1996 consultations with indigenous peoples; coordination of the financing policies of UNEP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) related to indigenous peoples; and the framework used to integrate the indigenous vision in preparing a global evaluation of biodiversity values. Both agencies were asked to address the problem of bio-piracy, as well as the lack of legal mechanisms to prevent it.

The UNEP representative said that UNEP had always consulted regionally. Financing policies within GEF projects could be found in the joint UNEP/GEF biodiversity projects.

Observers from indigenous organizations raised a number of concerns. One speaker said the World Summit on Sustainable Development in August could be an important opportunity for the Permanent Forum to voice the concerns of indigenous peoples. The "roll call" for the Permanent Forum to try and insert itself into the World Summit process was "an urgent call", and the Forum should convene a session at the Summit to discuss the links between indigenous peoples and sustainable development. Concerns were also expressed over compensation for environmental damage and rehabilitation, with nine members of the Forum speaking on the issue.

Turning to the question of health, the Forum heard the first two speakers. The delegate of Canada said the Permanent Forum could play an important role in furthering knowledge across countries, especially in selecting best practices and promoting exchange and learning in the area of indigenous health. One indigenous observer said HIV/AIDS was having a disproportionate impact on indigenous people, adding that assistance programmes should be delivered only after appropriate consultation with the recipients to achieve true benefits for indigenous communities.