Press Conference to Mark Close of Tenth Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

27 May 2011

Press Conference to Mark Close of Tenth Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

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

Press Conference to Mark Close of Tenth Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues


With major global meetings on the horizon — including the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, planned for 2014 — members of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said today that ensuring the “full, meaningful and equal” participation of indigenous representatives had taken on a truly paramount importance.

Speaking at a Headquarters press conference to mark the conclusion of the Forum’s tenth session, members Dalee Sambo Dorough, Raja Devasish Roy and Megan Davis said indigenous participation in decision-making processes had been an overarching theme during the session.  Ms. Dorough, an Inuit legal expert from Alaska, said the modalities of indigenous participation in the forthcoming World Conference had been among the most critical issues addressed this year.

She explained that the General Assembly had designated the Conference as a “high-level” meeting, sparking concern among indigenous peoples that their participation might therefore be difficult.  However, discussions with Member States on that matter, including during the tenth session, had been largely positive.  Nonetheless, much work was needed to crystallize the details of that participation, she stressed.

Mr. Roy, a Forum member from Bangladesh, expressed similar concerns, saying that the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as “Rio+20”, would be another crucial venue for meaningful indigenous participation.  “We are very concerned that indigenous peoples be involved in a substantive manner at all preparatory stages, and of course, in the follow-ups to the Conference,” he said.  He emphasized that there were several precedents for participation by indigenous peoples in major environmental meetings, including their representation at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio “Earth Summit”) as one of several “major groups”.  They had been similarly represented at follow-ups to that Conference, including “Rio+5” in 1997 and “Rio+10” in 2002.  Those meetings had acknowledged the contributions of indigenous peoples as “traditional scientific knowledge”, marking an important leap in the global recognition of indigenous environmental knowledge.

For her part, Ms. Davis spotlighted another critical issue that had emerged from the tenth session — national constitutional reform efforts.  “Many countries are revisiting their constitutions in order to better accommodate indigenous peoples” in governance and decision-making structures, she said, noting that among those with current or forthcoming constitutional reform processes were Kenya, New Zealand, Guyana, Bangladesh and her native Australia.  Meanwhile, a number of States had already undertaken constitutional reforms, and their indigenous representatives were providing useful insights into the process, including by exploring what they saw as the limitations of official, constitutional recognition.

Mr. Roy added in that context that since such recognition had not been seen until the last decade or so, discussion of constitutional amendments and revisions was crucial.  He said he agreed with Ms. Davis on the importance of holding up States that had successfully implemented reforms as models for other Governments.  “These examples are achievable and pragmatic,” he stressed.

Responding to questions, many of which focused on the setbacks and challenges still facing indigenous peoples, both on the ground and at the Permanent Forum in particular, Ms. Dorough said one “hot spot” concerned the killing or forced disappearance, reported by indigenous parliamentarians attending the session, of at least 60 people in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.  That was a troubling example of a situation in which indigenous people had attempted to defend their basic land rights, only to be met with a heavy-handed response on the part of local, or possibly even national, officials.

Asked about the contentious Chittagong Hill Tracts area of his native Bangladesh, Mr. Roy said the country’s Government was one of the few in the world which officially denied the existence of indigenous people within its borders.  Instead, it used the term “tribal people”, which many delegates throughout the session had described as insulting or inaccurate.  It was important to note, however, that the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and related International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions made reference to indigenous peoples “by any name”, he said.  “National Governments may use different terminology, but this does not change international law.”

Mr. Roy and Ms. Dorough also addressed a question about challenges that may have prohibited some indigenous representatives from attending the Forum, including the alleged existence of “lists” of organizations that were not permitted to attend.  Ms. Dorough said that, while she knew of no such list, she had heard about individuals barred for not following protocol, for lacking in decorum or for past “threatening” actions.  It was in the best interest of all participants to respect the Forum’s rules, she emphasized, adding, however, that the intergovernmental nature of the Forum had some necessary drawbacks.  “States will do what they can to safeguard their interests,” she said, adding that she had heard one report that an indigenous representative from Mongolia had been detained by Chinese officials.

Asked about the preservation of indigenous languages, Ms. Dorough said that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s reference to one indigenous language dying every two weeks demonstrated the extreme urgency of the problem.  Canadian Forum member Edward John would in the near future be spearheading language-preservation projects, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), she added.

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