21 May 2002





      The mandate of the new Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was among the broadest of all the bodies in the United Nations system, Mililani Trask of the United States, Forum member, told correspondents this morning at a Headquarters press conference. 


Economic and social development, culture, health and the aggregation and dissemination of information were among the many issues being considered, said

Ms. Trask, an indigenous person from Hawaii.  She expected that the Forum would have a difficult time preparing its first report, because the mandate was so large and there had been many excellent recommendations from governments, agencies, indigenous peoples organizations and non-governmental organizations.


      Ms. Trask was joined at the discussion of the Forum's work by Francis Ole Sakuda, a Maasai from Kenya, Aucan Huillcaman, a Mapuche from Chile, and Willie Littlechild, a Cree from of Canada, Vice-Chairman and rapporteur of the Forum.


      Mr. Sakuda said the Forum brought indigenous peoples together with all the stakeholders, thus providing an opportunity to discuss human rights, land issues, cultural preservation and education.  The Forum would allow indigenous peoples to influence governments to take action on the problems being faced.  He had been empowered by attending the session and had learned a great deal.  He would go back to the people he represented and organize workshops and training activities to discuss the way to move forward and empower the grass-roots community.


One of the issues Ms. Trask said she was hoping to see rapid action on was that of data aggregation and the creation of an Internet system that could collect, for the first time in United States history, all data relating to indigenous peoples and look at more efficient ways to disseminate it.  In the proposal, the role to be played by mainstream and indigenous media would be examined.  She also hoped that the foundations for a plan of action could be laid during the session. 


Mr. Huillcaman said indigenous peoples had very large concerns at the global level, ones that the Forum could deal with.  In that regard he cited the question of collective rights and land rights, the latter of which was still affected by the activities of transnational corporations.  The right to self-determination -- a fundamental right of indigenous people -- was another important issue being taken up. 


Mr. Littlechild called the inception of the Forum "a very significant and historic step for indigenous peoples."  While he was very encouraged, he realized that it was only a first step in "a long journey together to seek our recognition as peoples with the right of self-determination".


Responding to a question, Mr. Huillcaman said that governments saw the right to self-determination as a threat, and participants wished to open a dialogue on the subject.  They wanted the governments of the world to realize that if there was no recognition of that right there would be no enjoyment of the other rights for indigenous issues.  The Forum presented an opportunity to raise the issue with governments and discuss the problems envisaged by both sides.



Indigenous Issues Press Conference  - 2 -                   21 May 2002



Mr. Sakuda said the Forum was a place where all the actors could come together.  He noted that at the outset of the session his own permanent mission "didn't know what indigenous people are or who the indigenous people are in my own country".  He and his colleagues had therefore discussed the issue with the mission.  The Forum provided an opportunity for indigenous peoples to be heard.


Ms. Trask said she had heard a great deal of frustration from the floor during the session that the inter-sessional working group dealing with the issue of self-determination within the human rights context had made virtually no progress in the eight years since its inception -- only two provisions had been agreed upon, and the rest were being contested.  A clear message must be sent that the International Decade for the World Indigenous Peoples would close in two years and some progress must be seen.  


"We need to really get to applied self-determination," she said.  She asked what it meant when partnership was discussed and the "partners" were the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and national governments and not the indigenous peoples on whose lands projects were being undertaken.  Benefit sharing must have a particular meaning to the indigenous peoples being affected, she stressed.  Indigenous peoples were rights holders and they needed to have a place at the table.


Mr. Littlechild added that as an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council, the Forum would have an opportunity to make direct recommendations about, for example, respect and honour of treaties.


Asked what it was hoped the Forum would have accomplished when it concluded its session at week's end, Mr. Littlechild noted that within the rules of the Economic and Social Council, the Forum's report could only run to 16 pages in length.  Within those pages, it was hoped that the vision and decisions of the Forum and specific recommendations to the United Nations, governments and indigenous nations could be reflected. 


Asked if fact-finding missions to indigenous territories were envisaged,

Mr. Littlechild noted that for now lack of financial resources would prevent such undertakings.


Responding to another question, he said that indigenous representatives, governments and United Nations agencies had all taken the floor during the session. 


Ms. Trask said that much of the dialogue during the session had been between those present and the World Bank, because the Bank worked with transnational corporations.  United Nations agencies also worked with corporations -- in that regard, she cited the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).


Participants then gave an overview of the problems their people faced.  Among the issues raised were usurpation of land, non-observance of treaties, the debate on female circumcision, exclusion and lack of recognition and inadequate housing.





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      Established in 2000 by the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the Forum, which is composed of 16 independent experts -- eight nominated by indigenous groups and eight by governments -- is mandated to discuss indigenous issues relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.  It will meet once a year for 10 working days and submit an annual report to the Council on its activities, including recommendations for approval.







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