Fighting racial discrimination and striving to be acknowledged by States were among the challenges facing indigenous communities worldwide, requiring more collaborative efforts to effect meaningful change, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard today during its day-long consideration of human rights.
“Do not lose hope if you do not see immediate results,” said Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and one of five panel members addressing the Forum. “This is a long struggle.”
A range of expert panellists from legal to regional spheres provided global snapshots of the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples against a historical backdrop of violations, from land appropriation to systemic abuse. In some regions, indigenous peoples were still fighting for recognition, as was the case in Africa, where many States flatly rejected the “concept” of indigenous peoples, said Soyata Maiga, Chair of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africa.
Yet, the struggle for human rights had seen some triumphs, said Emilio Alvarez, Executive Director of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, noting a landmark case that would award 400,000 hectares on the borders of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay to 60 indigenous communities. That could set legal precedence for future land rights cases worldwide, he said.
Also providing overviews of their work were panellists Wilton Littlechild, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Kenneth Deer, Member of the Board of Trustees of the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations.
When the floor opened for discussion, Government representatives attending as observers described their efforts, while indigenous delegates shared their views and concerns, providing examples of challenges, from new technologies that threatened the lives, health and survival of indigenous communities to breaches of land treaty agreements.
Also weighing in was a representative of the International Labour Organization (ILO), speaking as Co-Chair of the United Nations Policy Board of the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Partnership. He underscored indigenous peoples’ significant place as rights holders under international human rights law. The Partnership’s work to support legal and policy reform, and improve access to justice had led to the development of seven national decrees in the Republic of the Congo, the reform of two national laws in Cameroon and the drafting and review of 16 new local/municipal decrees and laws on indigenous peoples in Bolivia, Central African Republic, Nicaragua, Indonesia and Cameroon.
A representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said indigenous peoples should also have a place in discussions on a post-2015 development agenda. For its part, the Office had worked to forge partnerships between indigenous peoples and States and had produced a manual for national institutions on the Declaration.
During the afternoon meeting, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples presented his report, which he explained was gleaned from studies on good practices, country reports, human rights violations and thematic areas, as well as from visits to Canada, Panama and Peru. During the ensuing dialogue, Government speakers and indigenous peoples’ organizations offered perspectives on some of the issues raised about their countries and territories.
The Permanent Forum will continue its work at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 21 May.
Panel on Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The Forum began with a panel on the Implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which featured presentations by: Wilton Littlechild, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Kenneth Deer, Member of the Board of Trustees of the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations; Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; Soyata Maiga, Chair of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africa; Emilio Alvarez, Executive Director of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Forum Chair Dalee Sambo Dorough acted as moderator.
Updating participants on the work of the Expert Mechanism, established in 2007, Mr. Littlechild said it would hold its seventh session in Geneva in July and he invited all to register. Over the past year, it had met to discuss the Declaration’s implementation, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples and the post-2015 development agenda. The Mechanism also had examined related issues, including women’s rights and sexual health and was studying others, including historical injustice and the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples in disaster scenarios, and in that connection, disaster risk reduction efforts.
Mr. Deer noted that the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples, established in 1985, aimed to provide indigenous people from all regions the resources and capacity to participate in United Nations’ processes and mechanisms. In cooperation with non-governmental organizations, the Fund also had helped indigenous peoples’ representatives to target their advocacy and make constructive interventions tailored to each United Nations event. In 2013, 66 travel grants had been awarded to allow indigenous representatives to participate in meetings of the Forum, Expert Mechanism and Human Rights Council, among others. However, it was imperative that the Fund received sustained and increased support from Governments and other donors, he said.
Mr. Tzay encouraged greater collaboration between the Committee and Forum, as many indigenous peoples continued to face prejudice and racism. He implored indigenous representatives to remain steadfast in their common quest. “Do not lose hope if you do not see immediate results,” he said, adding, “this is a long struggle”. The Committee had developed thematic debates and States parties had submitted periodic reports. He reiterated his hope that the Forum and Committee could improve coordination and invigorate their complementary work.
Ms. Maiga said that, since the Working Group’s establishment in 2004, it was still trying to convince States and stakeholders of the concept of indigenous peoples and their existence in Africa. Even though Heads of State and Government of the African Union had adopted a report on the matter, many African States flatly rejected the existence of indigenous communities within their territories, she said, citing as examples the Pygmies of the Great Lakes region, the Toubou of Mali and the Amazigh of North Africa. The Working Group had appealed to States parties to the African Charter to uphold human rights based on reports of violations. It also had conducted missions to more than a dozen States and raised awareness among stakeholders.
However, she added, the Group’s work was threatened by the lack of collaboration by some States and limited financial resources. Cooperation between the Forum, the Special Rapporteur and other relevant international stakeholders should be regularized and institutionalized to avoid duplication of efforts.
Mr. Alvarez said that, since 1972 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had stressed the legal obligation of States to protect indigenous peoples and their territories. Since then, the Commission created a post of Special Rapporteur to respond to new challenges, including extractive industries and the current development model.
He said that, despite instruments to protect their rights, including petition systems and public hearings, troubling issues persisted, including in connection with the “first contact” of indigenous peoples living in remote areas and the killing of indigenous women in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean. However, in several countries, courts had set precedence with their decisions involving the killing of indigenous leaders, confrontations with Governments, land disputes and the sexual abuse of indigenous women. A potentially landmark ruling was pending in a case involving the borders of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, which would give 60 indigenous groups title to 400,000 hectares of land.
When the floor opened for discussion, indigenous speakers expressed concern that some States were not engaging with the Declaration in ways that created meaningful change in their lives. While States affirmed that their policies and programmes were generally in line with the Declaration, they were urged to audit laws, policies and programmes to substantiate that claim, prioritizing the removal of discrimination and inequality and amend all such provisions.
On that point, the representative of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission said the challenge for indigenous peoples was to translate the human rights standards set out in the Declaration into purposeful actions and outcomes, both for themselves in exercising self-determination and for Governments that hesitated to embrace the Declaration as a framework for improving indigenous peoples’ opportunities. Agreeing, a representative of the Disability Caucus said the rights of indigenous peoples with disabilities also needed to be addressed.
For many speakers, the non-recognition of collective rights to lands and resources was the root cause of many human rights violations. A representative of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Caucus called on States in that region to withdraw military troops from indigenous territories and to swiftly establish an effective mechanism for prosecuting and convicting State and corporate perpetrators of human rights violations. They also urged legal recognition of indigenous communities. The African Caucus’ representative said measures must be taken to address the many laws created during colonization, which had established States as the overseers of land and natural resources and had excluded indigenous peoples.
Breaching existing treaties was cited as another concern. A representative of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition, speaking for 564 tribes, demanded that the United States’ Government repay more than $630 billion; they insisted that the building of the Keystone XL pipeline on their lands would be prevented.
Among other issues raised, a representative of the Pacific Caucus asked the Forum to recommend Hawaii’s re-inscription on the list of non-self-governing territories and called on the Economic and Social Council and General Assembly to support the establishment of a World Conference on Decolonization. Environmental threats was another area of great concern, she said, calling for free, prior and informed consent and regular impact assessments of the use of geoengineering technologies, such as the spraying of silver iodide into the atmosphere to increase cloud cover, soil carbon enhancement and other unnatural interventions carried out on lands, oceans, forests and space.
Government representatives, attending as observers, discussed the practical application of the Declaration in their strategic planning and service delivery, with some stressing it was an important reference point for meeting the aspirations of such large and diverse populations. Denmark’s representative said that, despite expressions of commitment to the Declaration, much remained to be done. “We simply need to advance its implementation,” she said, pressing States and United Nations’ actors not to shy away from tackling the challenges hindering that process, including adherence to positions about the status and content of the Declaration that weakened their commitment to it. The instrument had legal significance, was founded in human rights and played a role in reconciliation.
The challenges, some Government representatives said, had been in translating its provisions into domestic legislation, policies and actions. That was especially true for addressing the needs of the 800,000 Brazilians who identified themselves as among the more than 300 different peoples, said Brazil’s delegate. The Government had included indigenous peoples in the design and implementation of policies that affected them, notably through the National Indigenous Policy Commission, and especially in the areas of health care and education. Challenges centred on preventing non-indigenous peoples from intruding in the 688 indigenous territories, which made up the largest swath of indigenous lands in the world.
Building an inclusive society was a goal in El Salvador, that country’s delegate said, where a process to recover indigenous cultural diversity was under way, as past policies had made those peoples invisible. A department had been created to monitor discrimination. Other notable efforts included a housing policy being developed jointly with indigenous peoples that respected their world view, as well as the publication of the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary.
Devashish Roy, a Forum member from Bangladesh, recalling 15 May remarks by the representative of Bangladesh about the Chittagong region, urged the use of terminology accepted by the Forum. The term “ethnic minority” was no longer used.
The delegations of Paraguay and Australia also spoke as observers.
Dialogue with Special Rapporteur
James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in his last statement to the Forum before the end of his mandate next month, said he had refined his working methods in each area under his supervision — good practices, country reports, human rights violations and thematic areas — to orient them towards building constructive dialogue among indigenous peoples, Governments, United Nations agencies and others. In those innovations, he said he had sought to move beyond reacting to alleged human rights violations to assisting in the development of concrete proposals and programmes to advance indigenous rights.
Discussing his final three country reports, he said the report on Canada highlighted that the Government’s relationship with indigenous peoples had been guided by a well-developed legal framework. Yet, daunting challenges remained, including insufficient measures taken at the municipal and other levels, unresolved treaty and aboriginal claims, the vulnerability of indigenous women and girls to abuse, and high distrust among indigenous peoples towards the Government.
His report on Panama, based on a July 2013 visit, cited the country’s advanced legal framework for indigenous peoples, he said, noting that the system had provided considerable protection for their rights, notably vis-à-vis lands and territories. Yet, there was a fragile foundation for problems related to guarantees for indigenous peoples to their lands and resources.
His report on Peru, based on a December 2013 visit, stressed that indigenous peoples had suffered negative social and environmental impacts from extractive industry projects. High distrust had led to protests and clashes. Despite that, indigenous peoples had not completely rejected extractive industrial activities, but rather, had urged that their rights be respected.
The same was true around the world, he said, as indigenous peoples had suffered devastating impacts from extractive industries. Yet, with an eye towards the future, the interests of those two parties were not always contradictory. In many cases, indigenous peoples had been open to dialogue as long as it was done in ways that respected their rights. More understanding between States and industrial players was needed, as were new business models that respected indigenous peoples’ human rights.
Essential to all his work, he said, was advocacy for the implementation of the Declaration, whose adoption had been an historic moment of recognition of peoples who continued to suffer “wide-spread and systemic” deprivation of their human rights. The Declaration painted a vision of the world in which their individual and collective rights were respected. While the text was a significant achievement, it was also a challenge for the global movement to advance rights. On one hand, it embodied a significant level of consensus. On the other, it was a reminder of the long way to go to seeing those rights firmly embedded in State practice at national and international levels.
With that, he described the characteristics of the indigenous rights movement, saying it was, first and foremost, a force to enlighten. “There is a great deal of ignorance about indigenous peoples in the world,” he said, which bred attitudes that must be changed. Deeper education was needed to bring about a social and political climate that would bring to life the rights enshrined in the Declaration.
Another characteristic, he said, was the movement’s pragmatic tendency in the search for solutions, as had been seen in the 1970s to gain access to the United Nations, and eventually, a permanent presence in the Organization. Finally, there was the optimism that had animated the Iroquois and Haudenosaunee, or Chief Deskaheh, when he travelled in 1923 to the League of Nations in hopes of a response that would achieve justice for his people. That same optimism was seen today, in the indigenous peoples’ appeal to imagine a day when the rights enshrined in the Declaration would be honoured.
When the floor opened for discussion, indigenous groups and their Government counterparts, who were attending as observers, participated in an interactive dialogue on pressing issues.
In response to the Special Rapporteur’s report, Peru’s representative said it was important to keep in mind that his country was based on mining. What was done badly in the past was now being corrected. In 2011, Peru had enacted a law on the right to prior consultation for indigenous peoples and implemented regulations — making it the first country in the world to have done so. The scope of information provided was essential to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement. Implementing public policies required intersectoral work, and Peru had made gains, including maintaining a database of indigenous peoples that included 52 groups and translating materials into indigenous languages.
Addressing the report’s section on her country, Panama’s representative said immediately after the Special Rapporteur’s departure, the Vice-Ministry of Indigenous Affairs was created to ensure the highest level of cooperation with the State and the seven ethnic groups living in the country. Panama was committed to stepping up its efforts, to implementing laws and programmes on indigenous issues and to strengthen those peoples’ rights.
Canada’s representative said her Government recognized the challenges faced by many aboriginal peoples in the country, including the particularly unique logistical challenges posed by its geography. She said the Government acknowledged the Special Rapporteur’s report and was currently reviewing the recommendations.
Responding to conditions in Canada, a representative of the International Indian Treaty Council, speaking on behalf of the Confederacy of Six First Nations and Ermine Skin Cree Nation, said the report could become a blueprint for the Canadian Government. However, since the visit, there had been a number of developments, including the refusal of some nations to sign treaties and the recent resignation of the National Chief of First Nations. Additionally, the Canadian Government had put on hold negotiations over an education act. A meeting of emergency chiefs would take place this month and they would keep the Special Rapporteur informed. He strongly supported the call for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
At the same time, said a representative Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, the Special Rapporteur’s report had correctly noted that “it was difficult to reconcile Canada’s well-developed legal and policy framework with the crises faced by so many First Nation citizens”. Those crises included protecting land from extractive industries, missing and murdered women, health and education.
Speaking for the First Nations Summit, a representative said Canada must protect indigenous rights and meaningfully consult with communities on potentially environmentally damaging projects that violated their rights. It was not a matter of whether a tankard spill would occur, but rather when it would occur. His nation’s rights to land and to harvest food would be threatened by tankard traffic, originating from the Alberta tar sands, traversing his nation’s waters. Calling on Canada to protect indigenous rights, he said the Crown’s proposed approach treated indigenous consultation as an afterthought and not a dialogue-oriented process.
A representative of the Indigenous World Association said the proposed education legislation was unacceptable. Last week, a parliamentarian called indigenous leaders “rogue chiefs”, he said, asking if that had the effect of promoting xenophobia. Scant consultation with the Mohawk Nation was a norm on border issues, he said, particularly those regarding the Akwesasne reservation, which straddled the Canadian and United States’ border.
Responding to those interventions, the Special Rapporteur said that, on each visit, he had seen committed public servants dedicated to overcoming difficult issues. Acknowledging concerns voiced by indigenous groups from Canada, he expressed hope that his recommendations would be implemented. Those were not intended to spur confrontation; they were made in the spirit of advocacy.
Replying to a question about how the recommendations could be implemented, he said indigenous peoples should conduct a dialogue in their countries and press for implementation themselves. Raising awareness about the Special Rapporteur’s reports was also essential, he added.
Asked for his view about a suggestion that the General Assembly establish a position of a high-level official for indigenous peoples, given the existence of three competent mechanisms, he said a better way to approach the issues was needs-based and ensuring that existing mechanisms were fully staffed and resourced. As for how he could cooperate more with Governments to implement the Declaration, he said that he had worked with indigenous peoples on developing proposals, which had been extremely time consuming. Perhaps a high-level position for indigenous issues could be staffed accordingly to facilitate those efforts, he suggested.
The Forum members raised their concerns. Alvaro Esteban Pop, Forum member from Guatemala, said stocktaking and healing wounds needed to be addressed before moving forward and future opportunities and risks needed to be identified.
Forum member from the Russian Federation, Kara-Kys Arakchaa, said the session’s outcome document should include both negative and positive experiences, and both should be discussed at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. Forum member from Bolivia, Maria Eugenia Choque Quispe, pointed out that certain knowledge gaps existed in areas such as extractive activities, as well as between national and international standards. Forum member from Burkina Faso, Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, said alarm was spreading through the Forum and the Special Rapporteur’s work over the human rights of the Touareg peoples in Mali, and she called on all participants to respond accordingly.
Incoming Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said that she would keep in mind the comments made today as she shaped a road map for the future.
Representatives of the following indigenous organizations also delivered statements: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission; Africa Caucus; Disability Caucus; and the Aboriginal Rights Coalition.
Also intervening as observers were Government representatives from Guatemala, Honduras, Namibia, New Zealand, Russian Federation, Chile and Norway (on behalf of Denmark, Greenland, Finland, Iceland and Sweden).