Statement by


Carolyn Hannan


United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women



 “Taking Wing - Conference on Gender Equality and Women in the Arctic”

Saariselkä, Finland, 3-6 August 2002



Madame Minister

Excellencies and distinguished participants

Friends and colleagues,



It is a great honour and privilege to participate in this conference on gender equality and women in the Arctic.  I wish to congratulate the Government of Finland and the Arctic Council for taking this important initiative. Although I recognize that the topic is gender equality in the Arctic Circle more broadly, as a contribution to this conference I would like to provide an overview of United Nations activities in the context of indigenous peoples, highlighting areas where women and gender equality issues have been addressed.  I will also highlight challenges to be addressed in the future, especially in integrating gender equality issues into work on indigenous peoples.


The formal activities of the United Nations concerning indigenous issues began in 1970, with the recommendation by the then Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (now Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights) that a comprehensive study of the problem of discrimination against indigenous populations be undertaken. This was followed by the establishment of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which has been meeting annually since 1982.  The Working Group reviews developments pertaining to the promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous populations and gives special attention to the evolution of standards concerning the rights of such populations.  Of particular significance is the draft “United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples”, which was prepared by the Working Group and adopted by the Sub-Commission (resolution 1994/45 of 26 August 1994 of the Sub-Commission), and is currently being considered by the Commission on Human Rights.  It is envisaged that the draft declaration, which is viewed as having the potential to be one of the most important human rights documents for indigenous peoples, will be adopted by the General Assembly before the end of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People in 2004.  The draft declaration provides that all the rights and freedoms it recognizes are to be guaranteed equally to male and female indigenous individuals.  It also calls for particular attention to be paid to the special needs of indigenous women.


Parallel to these activities, the General Assembly proclaimed 1993 as the International Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples (General Assembly resolution 45/164 of 18 December 1990), following which it designated 1994 to 2004 as the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (Assembly resolution 48/163 of 21 December 1993).  The goal of the Decade is to strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health.


The International Labour Organization, one of the UN’s specialized agencies, showed an early interest in the situation of indigenous peoples.  Already in 1957, it adopted Convention No. 107 on indigenous and tribal populations in independent countries, and in 1989 adopted the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, known as “Convention 169”, which entered into force in 1991.  Convention 169 is unique in specifically addressing the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, and deals with, inter alia, the right to possession of land and territories traditionally occupied by indigenous peoples, the recognition of their cultural, social and religious values, custom-based law, the right to health services, and the right to benefit from equal conditions of employment.  Importantly, the employment situation of indigenous women is addressed under that Convention, with Governments being required to take measures to ensure that workers belonging to indigenous and tribal peoples enjoy equal opportunities and equal treatment in employment for men and women, as well as protection from sexual harassment.  


A number of United Nations conferences have addressed issues concerning indigenous populations. These include the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which under Agenda 21 adopted by the Conference, granted a central position to indigenous populations as important players who must be included in the environmental agenda.  Agenda 21 requested international organizations and Governments to take a range of measures to incorporate indigenous people’s values, views and knowledge, including the unique contribution of indigenous women, in resource management and other policies and programmes that may affect them. It also requested development agencies and Governments to commit financial and other resources to education and training for indigenous people, giving particular attention to strengthening the role of indigenous women. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 recognized the unique contribution of indigenous people to the development and plurality of society, and recommended that States take concerted steps to ensure respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, on the basis of equality and non-discrimination, and recognize the value and diversity of their distinct identities, cultures and social organization. 


The Declaration and Platform for Action adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 recognized that women can face additional barriers to the enjoyment of their human rights because they are indigenous people, and made recommendations concerning the adoption of a declaration on the rights of indigenous people and the translation of laws and information relating to the equal status and human rights of all women into indigenous languages.  The twenty-third special session of the General Assembly, entitled "Women 2000: gender equality, development and peace for the twenty-first century" (5-9 June 2000) made a number of recommendations concerning indigenous women, including that Governments should address the barriers women face in accessing and participating in politics and decision-making; take concrete steps to address the impact of violence on them; consider adopting national legislation to protect their knowledge, innovations and practices relating  to traditional medicines, biodiversity and indigenous technologies; undertake  appropriate  data  collection  and  research; and develop  and implement  educational  and  training  programmes  that  respect  their  history,  culture, spirituality, languages and aspirations and ensure their access to all levels of education.


Most recently, the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, dealt with indigenous rights within the framework of racism and racial discrimination.  The Commission on the Status of Women addressed indigenous women in its Agreed Conclusions on gender and all forms of discrimination, in particular racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance of 2001, in the lead up to the Durban Conference. The Durban Programme of Action specifically addressed the situation of indigenous women, requesting States “to adopt public policies and give impetus to programmes on behalf of and in concert with indigenous women and girls, with a view to promoting their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; to putting an end to their situation of disadvantage for reasons of gender and ethnicity; to dealing with urgent problems affecting them in regard to education, their physical and mental health, economic life and in the matter of violence against them, including domestic violence; and to eliminating the situation of aggravated discrimination suffered by indigenous women and girls on multiple grounds of racism and gender discrimination”.  The Programme of Action also urged States to incorporate a gender perspective in all programmes of action against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and to consider the burden of such discrimination which falls particularly on, inter alia, indigenous women and women from other disadvantaged groups, ensuring their access to the resources of production on an equal footing with men, as a means of promoting their participation in the economic and productive development of their communities.


            The United Nations human rights treaty bodies established to monitor international human rights treaties have raised the issue of indigenous peoples with States parties presenting reports under those treaties.  For example, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has expressed concern about the situation of land rights of indigenous populations in Guatemala; about land ownership, health and education of indigenous peoples in Costa Rica; and that indigenous women were subject to multiple forms of discrimination in Colombia.  That Committee has also expressed concern about the situation of indigenous populations in Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay, and made corresponding recommendations to those States parties. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has expressed concern about indigenous populations being displaced from their traditional lands in Bolivia and Panama; about discrimination against indigenous peoples in Venezuela, including in respect of land access, housing, health services, sanitation, education, work and nutrition; and about the limited possibilities for bilingual education for indigenous peoples in a number of countries; and has made specific recommendations in these contexts.


The Human Rights Committee has also considered the situation of indigenous peoples in its concluding comments, including emphasizing that indigenous populations in Australia should participate in decision-making on matters affecting them.  Additionally, the interface between the rights of indigenous peoples and individual rights has been addressed by this Committee in its consideration of individual complaints.  Concerns about discrimination against indigenous children and girls have also been made by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in its concluding observations.


I would like to focus in particular on the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (for which the Division for the Advancement of Women provided substantive servicing). The Committee has addressed the situation of indigenous women in many of its concluding comments on the reports of States parties. The Committee has expressed concern about discrimination faced by indigenous women in Mexico, noting that their health, education and employment indicators were below the national average, and was concerned that indigenous women were innocent victims of violence in conflict areas in that country.   It has expressed concern about illiteracy of indigenous women in Panama and about violence against indigenous women, including sexual violence, and their poverty and lack of access to contraception in Peru. The Committee has expressed concern about indigenous women in its concluding comments on Australia, indicating that violence, life expectancy, unemployment and health of such women remained problems; raised the issue of discrimination against indigenous women in its concluding comments on China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; and expressed concern about discrimination against Sami women in its concluding comments on Finland and on Sweden.  It has also expressed concern that the rights of hill-tribe women and girls in Thailand may not be effectively protected by national laws. In all these circumstances, the Committee made specific recommendations to the States parties concerned to address its concerns.


In 1994, the Human Rights Committee adopted General Comment No. 23 on article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The General Comment addresses the link between indigenous communities and their homelands and provides that the rights protected under article 27, such as the right to enjoy a particular culture, may consist of a way of life which is closely associated with territory and use of its resources, which may particularly be true of members of indigenous communities, and that culture manifests itself in many forms, including a particular way of life associated with the use of land resources, especially in the case of indigenous peoples. Additionally, the interface between the rights of indigenous peoples and individual rights has been addressed by this Committee in its consideration of individual complaints. 


United Nations entities have organized numerous consultations and workshops, and adopted policies and guidelines on the issue of indigenous peoples.  For example, the UNDP “Policy of Engagement”, adopted in 2001, underlines the main principles guiding UNDP engagement with indigenous peoples.  It is to be noted that under the area conflict prevention and peace building, UNDP recognizes the extra vulnerability of indigenous women in crisis situations and the important role women play in building peace and bridging differences, and stresses that concerted effort is needed to reach out to include indigenous women and their organizations in conflict-resolution strategies and post-conflict rehabilitation. UNDP’s policy recognizes that indigenous women tend to experience triple discrimination being poor, female, and indigenous and that it is critical that they play a central role in decision-making processes, as well as in the design, planning, implementation and evaluation of relevant programmes and projects.  The policy stresses the importance of empowering indigenous women and promoting gender equality within indigenous communities.


Other initiatives have been undertaken by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (particularly on reproductive health issues), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Bank.


 Two important developments have occurred within the United Nations in recent years that deserve special attention here.  The first is the appointment by the Commission on Human Rights in 2001 of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people (resolution 2001/57 of 24 April 2001 of the Commission on Human Rights). The mandate of the Special Rapporteur is to gather, request, receive and exchange information and communications on violations of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples; to formulate recommendations and proposals on measures and activities to prevent and remedy such violations; and to work in close relation with other UN entities and mechanisms.  The Special Rapporteur is to take into account a gender perspective while carrying out his/her duties, paying special attention to discrimination against indigenous women. 


The first report of the Special Rapporteur was submitted to the fifty-eighth session of the Commission on Human Rights in 2002.  The report describes the major issues involving indigenous rights, including those relating to land, territory, the environment

and natural resources; the administration of justice and legal conflicts; poverty, standards of living and sustainable development; language, culture and education; and self-government, autonomy, political participation and the right to self-determination. The Special Rapporteur stresses that discrimination and marginalization, particularly involving women and children, is a persistent problem; that women and children are particularly affected by the lack of citizenship documents, which render them more vulnerable to exploitation; and that indigenous women suffer terribly from violence that occurs in many indigenous lands. 


The second major development is the establishment by the Economic and Social Council of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000 (Economic and Social Council resolution 2000/22 of 28 July 2000), whose purpose is to serve as an advisory body to the Council with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.  The Forum is to provide expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the Council, as well as to programmes, funds and agencies of the United Nations; raise awareness and promote the integration and coordination of activities relating to indigenous issues within the United Nations system; and prepare and disseminate information on indigenous issues.  The Forum held its first session in May 2002.  Amongst the many side events at the first session of the Forum was a panel on empowering indigenous women.


I would like to now briefly mention some challenges and areas for further reflection and action.  A concern that is frequently raised is the gap between existing human rights legislation and the de facto situations facing indigenous peoples.  This presents a challenge to international mechanisms for the effective protection of human rights, in particular petition procedures, for example the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, now ratified by 41 States parties. 


A related issue is the capacity of collective rights to coexist with individual rights.   This is a complex issue which raises many questions, for example whether the adherence to indigenous institutions and practices might, under certain circumstances, violate individual human rights, including those of women and girls.  There is much debate on the issue, but commentators have argued that the debate should not focus on whether these sets of rights can coexist, but rather on how to achieve coexistence.  They have suggested that coexistence is possible and that where apparent conflicts occur, strategies should be devised to deal with the conflicts.


While the numerous activities of the United Nations system relating to indigenous peoples have at times addressed women and gender equality issues, there needs to be a more systematic approach to incorporating a gender perspective.  A number of important opportunities for increasing the focus on gender equality need to be fully taken advantage of. Firstly, the fact that the mandate of the Special Rapporteur calls for attention to gender perspectives can be built upon. The first report of the Special Rapporteur to the Human Rights Committee does give some attention to gender perspectives and this should be followed up. Efforts could be made to ensure that two of the studies proposed – one on human rights issues, particularly economic and social rights, regarding indigenous children, especially girls, and one on old and new forms of discrimination against indigenous people with a gender perspective – provide a good overview of the most important gender equality issues. In addition to focusing on these two specific studies relating to women and girls, efforts could also be made to ensure that all other topics recommended for study are also looked at from a gender perspective through study of existing materials, information gathered through questionnaires, and the high-level international seminars proposed by the Special Rapporteur.


Secondly, at the recent first session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, participants raised a number of critical gender issues in relation to health, education, employment, violence, conflict situations and the multiple dimensions of discrimination against women, and these concerns were reflected in the report to ECOSOC. A number of the key recommendations made in the report should be given further attention from a gender perspective. These include the invitation to the United Nations system organizations to routinely disaggregate data on indigenous peoples generally, and indigenous women and children specifically; the proposed technical seminar on women’s health and the study on immunization and vaccination; the development of a website on indigenous issues; and the proposed study of mandates, policies and programmes of specialized agencies of the United Nations system in the area of environment that relate to indigenous peoples. In each of these initiatives arising from the first session of the Permanent Forum, gender perspectives should be made explicit. Finally, the Permanent Forum has decided to make indigenous children and youth a focal point of work in the years to come. It will be important to promote routine disaggregation of data and to ensure that the specific needs of both girls and boys are identified and addressed.


The Division for the Advancement of Women intends to approach the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to suggest that the Division and the Forum convene a panel on indigenous women, which could be held during the second session of the Permanent Forum in the spring 2003, to discuss how gender perspectives can be fully incorporated into all aspects of the work of the Permanent Forum.


I wish you a very successful conference and look forward to taking the findings and recommendations back to the United Nations.


            I thank you.