13 May 2002


Press Briefing


Indigenous issues must be placed high on the international agenda, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said this afternoon at a Headquarters press conference.

The new Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which opened here today, was "a dream come true" for indigenous peoples and was a partnership between them and governments, she added.  Ms. Robinson was joined by Ole Henrik Magga, a representative of the Saami people of northern Europe and the newly-elected Chairperson of the Forum, and Saoudata Aboubacrine, a youth representative of the Tuareg People.

The 16-member body was a venue where the voices of indigenous peoples could be heard by governments and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC),

Ms. Robinson continued.  She was disappointed that there had not been more press interest in the Forum, which represented more than 300 million people worldwide, who were very often marginalized and discriminated against.

Mr. Magga said that the Forum was the result of years of hard work.  The Saami were nomadic people in north of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia, who had been discriminated against from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.  The Forum's first session was intended to be a dialogue, where United Nations agencies, governments and indigenous groups could share their views.  The main goal was to gain recognition of collective rights as well as the recognition of cultural rights as human rights. 

He added that it was a forum for cooperation and not for confrontation.  For most indigenous peoples, the issue was not one of creating their own States but to have recognition of their traditions and rights.  Also, the Forum needed its own section in the Secretariat as well as funding for future work. 

Ms. Aboubacrine represented a nomadic group covering five countries -- Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya and Algeria -- she said.  It was important for young indigenous people to add their voice to the Forum and to be heard.  Their concerns included education, health, environment and human rights.  She belonged to a women's indigenous organization and had worked as an intern in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  She had been able to share her experiences and those of others like her.

Asked what could be done to improve the way Governments treated indigenous populations, Mr. Magga said that it was important to show governments what those peoples wanted.  While indigenous peoples might seem exotic, their rights were similar to those of other people.  It was in the best interest of governments to provide a good life for all its citizens.  When he was growing up, there had been little understanding of his culture or language.  However, gradually a sense of understanding had been created.

As to the outcome of the Forum, Ms. Robinson said that the Forum had been encouraged by the President of the ECOSOC to prepare a report for consideration at the Council's July session.  She also stressed the need to have a permanent secretariat for the Forum and support for it.  Ideally, in the future, that support should come from the regular budget.  At the moment, her Office, as the lead agency, had to provide some of its un-earmarked funds to help the Forum get under way.  She appealed to governments and other agencies to provide that support. 

Also, she added, the members of the Forum would advise ECOSOC on the issues relating to indigenous peoples and would look for better coordination and structures to enable it to carry forward its work.  There were high expectations for what it must deliver and those expectations must be lived up to.

On human rights violations, she said that she had asked the Forum to examine how it could follow up on the Programme of Action from the World Conference against Racism (Durban, 2001), which had a separate section on indigenous issues.  The Forum could look at the follow-up and advise ECOSOC as well as link up with the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues. 

Replying to a question on how "indigenous" was defined, Mr. Magga said that there was a practical understanding of who indigenous peoples were.  Basically, they were people who were living on their traditional lands, being marginalized and discriminated against, and not being allowed to participate in the creation of the national State.  In practical life, it was obvious who was included in that category.

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For information media. Not an official record.