Protecting the rights of indigenous peoples

There are over 370 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the globe. Protecting and advancing their rights have been at the heart of Tonya Gonnella Frichner’s mission for almost three decades, serving as an attorney and former member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. In DESA News, she shares past gains and hopes for the future.

With the 12th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues taking place on 20-31 May, and with the world conference more than a year away, DESA News got an exclusive opportunity to meet with Ms. Tonya Gonnella Frichner.

Ms. Gonnella Frichner has an impressive track record, working as an attorney since 1987 to secure the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. She is the President and Founder of the American Indian Law Alliance and is a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, Snipe Clan. The city of Syracuse sits on their traditional territory, about 250 miles North-West of New York City.

During the past 20 years, she has sought to make the voices of indigenous peoples heard at some of the major UN Conferences. She also paved the way for the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000 and the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. From 2008 until 2010, Ms. Gonnella Frichner served as a member of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues and she was its North-American Regional Representative.

Long history of involvement

“I began my work in 1987, after I finished law school and it was the Iroquis Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee, that brought me along and mentored me and who took me to my first meeting at the UN in Geneva,” Ms. Gonnella Frichner said. “The Haudenosaunee have been doing this work for many, many years,” she added, sharing that it was in 1923, when a Cayuga Chief was sent to Geneva for the first time to discuss the situation on his territory.

Ms. Gonnella Frichner described the importance of the nation-to-nation relationship that had been established early on by her community, as European settlers started to arrive at their shores. “That’s when our treaties were established, our diplomacy,” she said. For her community, it was a natural step seeking justice at the United Nations. “In 1977 our people understood that there was a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but were confused as to why it did not apply to indigenous peoples,” she explained.

In 1992, she was involved in the first Earth Summit and she saw the surge in interest and participation of civil society. “Civil society should have a voice, and should be speaking with governments and should be holding them accountable on different levels,” she said, also pointing to the fact that indigenous peoples have taken a leading role in seeing civil society more involved at the UN.

Paving the way for UN Declaration

Ms. Gonnella Frichner also depicted the 14-year-long process that finally led to the creation and adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. “There were difficulties along the way, especially around the right to self determination,” she said. Getting the language right and reaching consensus also for the wording around the right to free, prior and informed consent, also involved a lot of work. “The article within the declaration that I am very proud of is the one protecting our treaties, agreements and other arrangements,” she added.

The UN Declaration is a milestone for Ms. Gonnella Frichner’s own Nation and she underscored the importance of its realization. “What our people would like to see is this declaration being implemented on a local and national level,” she added.

The need for a broader and more encompassing forum later led the way to the creation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and for three years Ms. Gonnella Frichner served as its member. “I was assigned to write a preliminary study on the Doctrine of Discovery and its affect on indigenous peoples,” she said. This Doctrine has throughout history led state actors to assert a sovereign dominant authority over indigenous peoples, ultimately resulting in the violation of their human rights. In 2012, the Permanent Forum addressed this issue as the main theme for its 11th session.

Critical matters for upcoming events and beyond

There are many important items on the agenda for the upcoming 12th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to be held on 20-31 May. The implementation of the UN Declaration, education, health and culture – these are some of the topics at hand. There will also be a discussion on the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples which will be held at UN Headquarters in September next year.

“My hope is that it will continue its excellent work,” said Ms. Gonnella Frichner, describing the Forum’s important role addressing a number of issues related to social and economic development. “If we look at health, the statistics are very, very high against us and it has been agreed to that indigenous peoples are the most marginalized in the world and the most vulnerable. Whether suffering from diabetes or tuberculosis, the list goes on and on,” she said, adding that these statistics basically are the same in developing and developed countries.

“Education, the statistics are the same. Governments need to provide situations where education as a human right, is available to indigenous peoples. Education is important but including our life ways and our languages must be attached to that as well,” she said.

Ms. Gonnella Frichner also underscored the vital role of culture and the need for it to be part of the domestic policies of governments. “When I think of culture I think of being in a room with 2,000 indigenous peoples all speaking different languages,” she said smiling. “But when we are together, in our meetings, we are speaking one language,” she added. “Our relationship to mother Earth is identical throughout indigenous communities.”

When talking about next year’s world conference, Ms. Gonnella Frichner expressed hope that the participation of indigenous peoples will be at a high-level, pointing to the strong commitment for this event shown by the past and current President of the General Assembly. Indigenous delegates will also gather for a meeting in Alta, Norway this June to look at the issues at hand and to draft a unified statement for the world conference.

Addressing poverty at core of priorities

When we discussed the development agenda beyond 2015 and some of the most important priorities, Ms. Gonnella Frichner emphasized the issue of poverty. “Poverty is the overarching theme if you will, that affects indigenous peoples when it comes to health, education, our youth, our women. It affects everything across the board.” She also underscored the need for an inclusive process, ensuring indigenous peoples participation.

“Development in indigenous communities must be applied with the Declaration in mind,” she said, explaining the importance of using it as a framework to look at development, poverty and its affect on all indigenous peoples within different regions. “It must be applied, seriously, not only on a local, national, but international level,” she said.

Involvement of future generations key

Playing a crucial part in world matters is today’s youth, which makes up for about 40 per cent of the global population, with 67 million of them representing the indigenous youth community. “We have seen indigenous youth take on a very strong role and make very strong statements,” Ms. Gonnella Frichner said, highlighting that one of their main concerns relates to climate change and global warming.

“This world is going to be left to them, they are our future leaders, so our responsibility is to mentor those future leaders, and to bring them into the discussions,” she said. “And that’s not just for indigenous youth, that’s for all youth throughout the world,” she added. “As we say from the community that I’m from, the Haudenosaunee, when our leaders sit in deliberation, when they are in counsel, their decisions are going to be made with the 7th generation in mind,” she explained.

Ms. Gonnella Frichner underscored the importance of this kind of approach. “So that we don’t stick with a quick fix, or something that will only last for 15 years. No it must be until that seventh generation has arrived. The world needs to be intact for them when they arrive and are here to take on the challenges of this world,” she concluded encouragingly.

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