Empowering indigenous voices

There are over 370 million indigenous people in about 90 countries worldwide. Over the last 20 years, their voices have especially found an attentive space at the UN. Indigenous communities continue to engage with the international community by cooperating with working groups and participating in the initiatives that promote the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the General Assembly in 2007.

On 22-25 November training sessions on “Indigenous Peoples’ Issues” were held for the UN Country Team (UNCT), government officials and Indigenous peoples’ representatives in the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville. Spearheaded by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) with the support of the UNCT, the sessions supported streamlining the UNDG Guidelines on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues in the programmes and projects developed by the UN agencies working in Congo.

The training was also intended to promote the effective participation of indigenous peoples in national Congolese politics, especially in the aftermath of the approval of Law N. 5/2011 of 25 February 2011 on the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples.

The other week, the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues invited Athili Anthony Sapriina, a participant of past UNPFII sessions and the first indigenous person to attend Columbia University’s Human Rights Advocates Program, to speak at a brown bag event.

Athili’s call to advocacy for indigenous rights was jumpstarted in 1987, when he witnessed the violent aftermath of the Indian Army’s Operation Bluebird hurled against the Naga population. Two years later, driven by the need to build peace in Nagaland, he traveled 1500 miles away from home to study in New Dehli.

His university education was shaped by his experience as a young student activist of the Naga Students’ Union Delhi and the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights. He wanted “to empower indigenous youth to play a bigger and more visible role in addressing the needs of their people.”

By 2003, his experience working with the media fulltime revealed the powerful potential of communication tools in the peacemaking process by drawing attention to indigenous issues.

At the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May 2010, Athili’s advocacy work and interest in journalism for indigenous rights intersected during a talk by an exiled journalist from Guinea.

“His story had reverberated in me because he too, like me, had no formal training as a journalist,” says Athili. With guidance from the Tribal Link Foundation and Elsa Stamatopoulou, former Chief of the Secretariat of the UNPFii, now professor of Anthropology at Columbia, Athili successfully applied to Columbia University’s Human Rights Advocates Program.

Now, as the journey of his program nears completion, Athili recounts the rich intellectual exercise of his classes in “Governmentality, Citizenship, and Indigenous Political Critique”, “New Media and Development Communication”, and “Politics of History and Reconciliation”.

Upon his return he wants to explore the possibilities of social media, and initiate linkages between Nagaland University and Columbia University. Furthermore, he will “call for capacity building of indigenous peoples where informed decisions are to be made over issues affecting their lives.”

Athili’s ongoing passion for humanitarian work is energized by a profound sense of optimism. “You realize you are touching the core values and practices, which will shape the future of a people…Even if a few individuals who have a profound belief in something just come together, change can happen.”

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