Volume 14, No.4 - April 2010

Feature articles

Indigenous peoples and violation of their rights


Indigenous peoples are the caretakers of some of the world’s most diverse territories. However, in many countries, they face discrimination and conflict on a daily basis. The United Nations has continually provided opportunities for indigenous peoples to have their voices heard at the international level. One of the major achievements in recent years was the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was voted for in the General Assembly in 2007.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) was established by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution 2000/22 on 28 July 2000. To substantiate this work, the Permanent Forum was called upon to provide expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the United Nations system and to raise awareness and promote the integration of relevant activities within the UN system.

The Permanent Forum is comprised of sixteen independent experts who serve for a term of three years as Members and may be re-elected or re-appointed for one additional term. Eight of the Members are nominated by Governments and the other eight are nominated directly by indigenous organizations in their regions. The Members nominated by Governments are elected by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) based on five regional groupings of States normally used at the United Nations.

Each year UNPFII meets for 10 days in New York. The meeting focuses on important matters related to indigenous peoples such as economic and social development issues, environment, cultural issues, health and human rights. This year’s session, which will take place from 19-30 April, has a special theme entitled “Indigenous peoples: development with culture and identity; articles 3 and 32 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”.

UNPFII takes on the plight of indigenous peoples

One of the most common issues faced by indigenous peoples across the world are the barriers which prevent them from becoming custodians of their own land. Developmental activities continue to impose large infrastructure projects on their lands without their free, prior and informed consent. As a result, poverty, inequality and massive environmental devastation ensue. This has often been cited as a gross violation of their human rights.

Indigenous peoples can be hesitant towards such Western concepts as “globalization” and “development”. For many indigenous peoples (as noted in previous sessions of the UNPFII) globalization is viewed as “an aggressive attempt to shape national economies to mimic the economic system of the industrialized countries and which is grossly unjust and has promoted further inequality and environmental devastation within a short period of time”.

Furthermore, indigenous peoples’ own governance, economic, social, education, cultural, spiritual and knowledge systems and their natural resources have sustained them through generations. Rupturing the fabric of their social life through these violating tendencies often harms indigenous communities.

Guarani people and their fundamental rights

As part of its human rights agenda, the Permanent Forum will engage in separate dialogues with the Governments of Bolivia and Paraguay to follow-up to the missions undertaken by the Forum to both countries in early 2009.

The missions focused on the situations of forced labour faced by Guarani people of the Chaco regions of both countries. The region’s complex political economy coupled with the highly concentrated nature of land ownership has complicated matters for indigenous peoples. The lands that are in the middle of the dispute have either been recognized or are being claimed by the Guarani peoples.

In the case of Bolivia, these lands are often in the middle of vast estates containing important reserves of hydrocarbons and are crossed by gas pipelines owned by oil companies. This is a source of extensive wealth but unfortunately the Guarani people receive little or no benefit from it. Furthermore, the situation has intensified the amount of tension between the Government and local authorities. With the country’s richest resources in question, local authorities in cooperation with big landowners are fighting for control of the resources and looking for higher degree of autonomy from the Government.

In both Bolivia and Paraguay, landowners operate with inexpensive indigenous labour. As a result, forced labour, child labour, poor working conditions, the loss of and consequent lack of access to lands, the non-existence of social services, and restrictions on the right to freedom from association and discrimination are some of the discriminatory predicaments arising from this situation. The reports and recommendations of the missions undertaken by the Permanent Forum concentrate on these issues and more. This year’s session will address such concerns.

Special side events at UNPFII

Like every year, this session of UNPFII will have some special side events where different indigenous organizations take part to discuss issues that affect them at the local level. For instance, the United States Agency for International Development is one of the participants who will conduct a Panel Discussion on USAID in Latin America. They will display and discuss the programmes that benefit Indigenous Peoples in Latin America with a period for questions and feedback from the audience to determine how programmes are utilized.

Another side event is the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Roundtable Discussion on Indigenous Peoples and Biodiversity. This particular event will highlight the emerging issues on indigenous peoples and biodiversity conservation and sustainable use on the occasion of the International Year on Biodiversity.

Indigenous peoples of the North American region

This year’ session will devote a half day to discuss some major issues pertaining to North America. In the USA and Canada, Indigenous peoples face discrimination and live with legacy of historical abuse related to colonization and forced assimilation policies. Some challenges faced by indigenous peoples of North America include disproportionately high levels of unemployment, lack of access to clean water supply, physical and social isolation, substandard and crowded housing and attacks on indigenous peoples’ cultural identity.

Assimilation tactics of the past, such as residential schools and adoption programs, have negatively impacted on indigenous peoples’ cultures, languages and traditions. Since 2006, several efforts by the Canadian government in particular have attempted reconciliation between the indigenous peoples and the Government.

The discrepancies between the lives of aboriginal and other North American women are quite daunting. Indigenous women in North America face disproportionately high rates of physical and sexual violence, and are often five times more likely to experience violent death than other North American women.

In Canada, approximately 500 aboriginal women have been murdered or reported missing over the past 15 years. Indigenous women are also overrepresented in North American prison systems and experience incidences of a range of health issues or illnesses, including diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV infection, obesity and hypertension at rates several times higher than those in the non-aboriginal population.

In addition, environmental concerns are widespread among indigenous peoples in the North American region. Rapid industrialization of the land and water has altered the natural relationships that have sustained indigenous peoples and their communities for centuries. As a result of these changes, health problems related to toxic chemicals and pollution have increased significantly.

The Special Rapporteur

Every year, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, Professor James Anaya, holds individual meetings with representatives of indigenous peoples and organizations. This year, too, representatives of indigenous peoples and their organizations are expected to request a meeting with regard to matters that fall within the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and areas of work, including specific situations of alleged violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights.

More information The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Top executives and philanthropy leaders to promote gender equality


The United Nations launched a new effort today to expand its partnership with the private sector and philanthropies in the battle for complete gender equality and the empowerment of women.

“To the private sector, we look to you to exercise even more leadership for gender equality starting from the top,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a special event at UN Headquarters, attended by some 300 representatives of foundations, private companies, academia and civil society organizations.

Ensuring health improvements on all fronts


Improving health and reducing mortality are major objectives of development, according to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, the health-related MDGs focus on the causes of a small share of deaths worldwide and are relevant mainly for low-income countries. Ensuring health improvements on all fronts are therefore crucial.

The 43rd session of the Commission on Population and Development, which takes place from 12-16 April, will focus on “Health, Morbidity, Mortality and Development”. The Commission will look at the significant reduction in mortality that has occurred over in the last five decades and notes that the reduction, and the increase in life expectancy, is associated with a shift in the cause of death from communicable to non-communicable diseases.

A major topic of this year’s Commission will be the link between income and health. Previous reports of the Commission have observed that there is a persistent association between increasing incomes and better health. However, at the country level, health improvements have begun to occur without major changes in income. Such achievements can be repeated by combining an intersectoral approach to disease prevention with measures to strengthen health-care delivery in a sustainable manner, particularly by ensuring that health systems have comprehensive primary health care at their core.

The unprecedented decrease in worldwide mortality is a great human achievement. Some of the factors contributing to this decrease include higher calorie intake made possible by rising agricultural productivity, better hygiene facilitated by improvements in sanitation and access to safe drinking water, the development of insecticides, and the many breakthroughs in medical technology leading to cost-effective public health interventions and effective treatments. All of them have contributed to reduce the incidence of disease at younger ages and prevent death when disease strikes.

Communicable and non-communicable diseases

A major factor in the remarkable increase in longevity has been the control of the spread of communicable diseases and the use of effective medicinal drugs to treat them. This has resulted in a transition in terms of causes of death from being preponderantly communicable diseases to being dominated by non-communicable diseases.

By the 1970s, even in the absence of sustained economic growth, the major infectious and parasitic diseases that had affected humanity for centuries were being successfully controlled or treated. Most communicable diseases are preventable, treatable or curable with low-cost interventions.

However, progress towards achieving a complete eradication of communicable diseases is falling short and the MDGs do not address all those diseases. The key interventions to combat the major communicable diseases include HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, neglected tropical diseases, communicable causes of child mortality and maternal conditions.

On the other hand, non-communicable diseases still cause 60 per cent of deaths worldwide and 72 per cent of those in middle-income countries, and their share of the burden of disease is expected to increase in the future. Among them, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and depression represent the leading threats to human health and development.

Non-communicable diseases pose a major economic and social burden because most are chronic and require long-term treatment. Yet, up to 80 per cent of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and over a third of cancers could be prevented by eliminating shared risk factors, especially tobacco use, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity.

In addition, advances in biomedical and behavioural management have substantially increased the ability of interventions to prevent and control these diseases, especially when effective treatments, self-management support and regular follow-up are provided. Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death in the world since it is a risk factor for all the major non-communicable diseases.

Strategies to strengthen health systems

The Commission’s reports include a number of recommendations, calling for strengthening of health systems, especially the training of health workers. Shortages of health workers are severe in many low-income countries but also exist in high-income countries because of the increasing burden of chronic disease among their ageing populations. There is a need for concerted efforts at both the national and international level to train an adequate supply of health workers, ensuring that training produces the variety of skills needed and that it is oriented to the contexts in which health workers are required.

Devising incentives for health workers to take jobs and remain in underserved areas, especially the rural areas of developing countries, is also necessary. Donor funding can assist Governments of low-income countries to implement national plans on health workforce retention and development. High-income countries should follow responsible recruitment practices in order not to exacerbate the shortage of health workers in low-income countries.

A key strategy is to strengthen health systems to ensure that they can deliver the services that communities require, including not only curative care and the treatment of acute conditions but also preventive care, health promotion and the long-term management of chronic conditions. A comprehensive primary health-care approach offers a flexible framework to achieve these objectives.

To be comprehensive, primary healthcare must integrate individual and population-based care, blending the clinical approach with epidemiology, preventive medicine and health promotion. It should be the basis of a district health system, with capacity to treat most cases and adequate referral support from secondary- and tertiary-care facilities. It should ensure a holistic approach to health maintenance, disease prevention and the management of chronic conditions through interdisciplinary practice and continuity of care.

In conclusion, ensuring health improvements on all fronts, including mortality trends, cause of death, the burden of disease, health and development, the role of primary health care, the need for health workers, prevention and treatment of communicable diseases and maternal conditions, prevention of non-communicable diseases and preventing injuries are, therefore, crucial.

More information on 43rd session of the Commission on Population and Development