Press Conference on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples

18 May 2011

Press Conference on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples

18 May 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples


While some strides had been made by the international community in protecting the basic human rights of indigenous peoples, significant breaches of those rights still existed around the world, said prominent indigenous representatives at a Headquarters press conference today.

“Despite decades of work at the [United Nations], unfortunately many of these human rights violations persist,” said Dalee Sambo Dorough, an Inuit legal expert and Professor at the University of Alaska, who had also been recently elected Vice-Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which is holding its annual session at United Nations Headquarters from 16-27 May.  Joining Ms. Dorough to discuss the next topic on the Permanent Forum’s work programme — human rights — was Edward Tunyon of the Tanzania Network for Indigenous Pastoralists, who was attending the Forum as a representative of the African Caucus.

While an important body, Ms. Dorough reminded correspondents, the Forum and other United Nations mechanisms related to indigenous peoples had not arisen from the simple “altruism” of States.  On the contrary, she emphasized, indigenous groups had pressed the United Nations to open its doors following centuries of direct and often “brutal” violations of their human rights — including forced removal and assimilation, denial of land rights and abuses by armed forces.

Ms. Dorough said that this morning, at a side event for the Permanent Forum, she had heard yet another example of such a violation.  A delegate from Mexico’s Oaxaca state had said that 60 indigenous individuals had disappeared following a complicated land conflict, she said.  Giving an example from her own experience, the much-hailed 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement between the Inuit People and the Government of Canada still contained “huge problems”, as the Government had not upheld some of the basic provisions of the Inuit’s terms.  There was an ongoing lawsuit about that agreement, she said, despite its being portrayed as the start of a “new era” of indigenous governance.

Mr. Tunyon said that parallel situations existed across the globe on the African continent.  In his native Tanzania, he said, the Government was using force to remove pastoralists, or indigenous livestock herders, from lands that had recently been privatized or designated as national parks.  “The pastoralists have been there for many decades,” he said, stressing that, nonetheless, many were being beaten or imprisoned for resisting the forced evacuation of their lands.  In addition, police implementing the removals were taking and holding hostage their livestock, and then extorting money for their return.

Moreover, families who were forcibly removed lost an average of 30 per cent of their livestock — their most critical asset — in the process.  They were instructed to move long distances and were not given clear directions on where to resettle.  “They just tell you to go,” he said, adding that those moved were offered no support during the resettlement process.  As a result of the uprooting and the loss of livelihoods, many families lived “very poor lives” after resettling, and few had enough money to send their children to school.

Following those vivid examples, the speakers took questions from correspondents, including one asking how the United Nations, and the Human Rights Council in particular, could translate their human rights standards into practice for indigenous communities.  Responding, Ms. Dorough stressed that it was important to remember that the United Nations was a community of Member States.  Governments must, therefore, uphold their own obligations to the principles of human rights, she said.  In the context of responsiveness and implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, States must take on the initial obligation to begin adopting policies, legislation, and even constitutional changes that were better aligned with the principles of the Declaration.

Meanwhile, she said, the Human Rights Council had taken a range of “proactive” actions in enforcing the Declaration, including through its Universal Periodic Review Process.  That Process offered States the chance to review the human rights policies and practices of their fellow members, she said.  Some United Nations agencies and other groups had recently shown a trend towards implementing the standards of the Declaration, she added, citing the example of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which had adopted the specific principle of “free, prior and informed consent” in its work.  “To me, what is most important is where the rubber hits the road,” she said, urging stakeholders to ask themselves whether their actions had improved the daily quality of life for indigenous people on the ground.

Responding to a question about whether the United Nations Security Council could have jurisdiction over any indigenous issues, Ms. Dorough said that, in the context of armed conflict and insecurity that sometimes arose in the dealings of indigenous communities, the Council “should certainly not turn away” from issues that had the potential to destabilize conditions.  Matters considered by the Security Council were done so on a case-by-case basis, she noted.  Therefore, in the case of those indigenous matters that fell within the agenda and authority of the Council, it would indeed be “right and correct” for the Council to take them up.

Ms. Dorough also responded to a question regarding third party entities in indigenous land conflicts — in particular, bottled water companies that were allegedly “grabbing land” in Canada.  She said that the lack of recognition of, and respect for, the lands of indigenous peoples by Governments was the “first hurdle” that had to be cleared, before talking about third parties.  It was, nonetheless, “absolutely critical” that parties, such as multinational companies, be required to adopt policies of consultation, dialogue and negotiation, as well as recognizing the right of indigenous communities to free, prior and informed consent.  If those elements were in place, she added, “there can be a win-win situation” with regard to renewable resources.

In response to a correspondent’s question about the classification by Governments of indigenous peoples, Mr. Tunyon said that, in Africa, it was important that indigenous peoples were classified as those living within a “traditional system”, as opposed to relying on the distinction of those who were “born there”.

Also, joining the press conference to address the situation of human rights in Hungary, Finland, Estonia, the Russian Federation and other neighbouring States was Vesily Nemechkin of the Youth Association of Finno-Ugric Youth People.  He represented an umbrella organization of 40 national groups.

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