24 May 2007


24 May 2007
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


With native and tribal peoples sounding the alarm from the front lines -- especially those dependent directly on natural resources threatened by global warming –- the head of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today announced that the 16-member expert group’s 2008 session would examine the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples.

Recognizing that lands, territories and natural resources –- the theme of this year’s sixth session of the Permanent Forum -- were crucial issues for indigenous peoples and were closely linked to the global warming debate, Chairperson Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said the special theme of the seventh session would be “Climate change and stewardship role of indigenous peoples: bio-cultural diversity, livelihoods and new challenges”.

“All the members of the Forum were in agreement on this […] we are heeding pleas of the participants in the session, especially indigenous representatives,” said Ms. Tauli Corpuz, briefing correspondents at Headquarters on the outcome of the session, which opened last Monday and will wrap up tomorrow.  Among other things, she stressed that many of the participants this year had also expressed concern about the rapid disappearance of indigenous languages.

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, who is from the Philippines, said that indeed, 4,000 of the world’s remaining 6,000 languages were spoken by indigenous peoples.  With that in mind, the Permanent Forum would next year hold a half-day session on traditional languages.  She also noted that next year had been designated the International Year of Languages, and that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was reportedly considering launching preparations on a draft convention or declaration on the protection of languages.

She also said that this year there had been many recommendations from the Forum’s participants on identifying ways in which customary land tenure and resource management systems could be better respected and protected.  Discriminatory laws did not respect such rights, and Governments often gave priority to corporations over indigenous concerns, she added.

Joining Ms. Tapuli-Corpuz at the briefing was Wilton Littlechild, a Forum expert from Canada, who updated reporters on the contentious negotiations on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which have been stalled in the General Assembly after the Geneva-based Human Rights Council had approved the text last year.

He said that while the Forum had chosen lands, territories and natural resources as it special theme, he had realized, after almost two weeks, that the session also had a parallel theme -- the adoption of the long, in-the-works Declaration.  He said that he was celebrating his 30-year association with the United Nations and realized that 24 of those years had been devoted to pushing through the adoption of the Declaration.

At the opening of the Forum’s session, he had encouraged Member States, indigenous groups and Government representatives to take advantage of the two weeks to take a fresh look at the text, which had been languishing for five months.  While he had subsequently been moved by the repeated calls in the Forum for the adoption of the draft by the General Assembly, he had been disappointed by the lack of participation in the Forum’s discussions by Government delegations, particularly from Africa and the Asian region.

He said that last week, the African Group had presented the President of the General Assembly with a revised version of the Declaration, which had proposed amendments to 30 of its 46 provisions “in a manner that dilutes considerably, and, in some cases, outright denies the rights outlined in the Declaration”.  By example, he said that one such proposal had been to omit a reference to self-determination altogether.

“The Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus considers this proposal unacceptable and inconsistent with international human rights law,” he said, adding that the Caucus was opposed to any process that sought to amend the text adopted by the Human Rights Council.

“The United Nations Declaration is about the dignity of indigenous peoples,” he said, reminding correspondents that native and tribal peoples had been left out of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights ( Vienna).  The point was to have indigenous people recognized as human beings with fundamental rights.  The current Declaration also stressed the right to development, self-government and free, prior and informed consent.  “These are basic, fundamental rights that everybody else has, so this is about us catching up with the rest of the world,” he added.

Ms. Tapuli-Corpuz added that the Declaration was an interpretation of international human rights law insofar as it applied to indigenous peoples.  It did not, as many had charged, create new “special rights” or obligations for States.  “It’s really a response to the cries all the indigenous peoples around the world have brought to the international community,” she said.

Mr. Littlechild also addressed reports that the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand (CANZUS Group) had been hard at work lobbying African States to vote against the Declaration in the Assembly.  It was common knowledge that the CANZUS States had reaped significant economic benefits from the South -- through globalization -- at the expense of the human rights, lands and territories of indigenous peoples.  His own country, Canada, had extensive mining interests all over Africa, so, considering that strong economic position, “it isn’t a far stretch” to consider that the African Group’s sudden opposition to the current Declaration, which it had supported in Geneva, could perhaps be due to Canada’s political influence.

He stressed that the Declaration had not been crafted to create division.  It was not, as some had called it, “a formula for crisis”.  He said that last month, the Caucus, Canada’s Chiefs and other Native Americans and indigenous groups, had presented a proposal to the Canadian Government in the form of a statement of understanding on various parts of the Declaration but that had been quietly rejected.  “So I’m really at a loss, other than to call for implementation,” he said.

As for Africa’s position, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said that Botswana, Nigeria, Namibia, Kenya and Gabon had been most vocal in leading the opposition against the text.  Responding to questions, she added that the letter with African proposals had been delivered to the Assembly President by Gabon, now heading up the African Group.  “So we definitely see it as an African Group proposal.”  Mr. Littlechild reiterated that many of the African countries that had supported the adoption of the Declaration at the Human Rights Council had now pulled their support.  “Something happened on the flight, I guess.  It really is perplexing.”

On the reports that Viet Nam had protested a film being shown at a side event that might have contained negative portrayals of the Government’s treatment of indigenous communities, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said the Forum’s Secretariat was a part of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), and if there was an official complaint by a Member State, that Department would have to address it.  She said that this was not the first time that States had complained about such things.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.