Protecting indigenous traditional knowledge, creating inclusive political systems and halting Government land grabs should be among the priorities guiding the future work of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, delegates heard today on the penultimate day of the body’s two-week thirteenth session.
During a day-long debate, a number of indigenous organizations issued strong calls on the United Nations and Governments alike to make room for them at the decision-making table. In an strongly worded appeal, a representative of the American Indian Law Alliance, Seventh Generation Fund, called for permanent observer status for indigenous peoples, at the United Nations, based on the outcome of the 2013 Preparatory Meeting for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, held in Alta, Norway.
“We are equal to all peoples and nations,” she said, drawing attention to entities that had been given that status in the work of the General Assembly, such as the Permanent Observer Missions of the Holy See and the State of Palestine.
Agreeing, a representative of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus called for permanent observer status for indigenous peoples through their own traditional authorities. Indigenous peoples did not refer to themselves as members of civil society or non-governmental organizations, she added, encouraging the Forum to facilitate discussion whereby indigenous participants could approach States with questions, comments and clarification requests.
Some speakers deplored the escalation of human rights violations due to corporate operations, especially by extractive industries, as well as the militarization of their communities. On that point, the representative of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Caucus cited Government anti-insurgency operations that had led to extrajudicial killings of indigenous leaders. Those asserting their rights over their lands, territories and resources were often tagged as supporters of armed groups fighting their Governments.
Forum member from Guatemala, Alvaro Esteban Pop, said that indigenous peoples were not asking for permission to exercise their rights, but were demanding that States respected them.
Introducing a report on indigenous peoples’ participation in democracies and electoral processes in Latin America under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (document E/C.19/2014/6), he stressed the need to create inclusive systems that reflected multi-ethnic and multicultural realities. Despite progress towards political inclusion, as well as the existence of international instruments, there were challenges indigenous peoples must overcome to make political processes effective, including constitutional reform. With that in mind, there was no legitimate future for States if they failed to recognize other decision-making mechanisms, including traditional legal systems, he said.
Elifuraha Isaya Laltaika, Executive Director of the Association for Law and Advocacy for Pastoralists, sounded a similar note when she introduced a study on the African region’s challenges to protecting traditional knowledge, genetic resources and folklore. The text recommended, among others, that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) should focus on African indigenous peoples’ participation towards adoption of a legally binding outcome document that reflected their demands. African States were encouraged to provide training for officials and staff on indigenous peoples’ knowledge, including about sustainable development. A representative of WIPO said the study would indeed contribute to ongoing negotiations as indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge embodied significant innovation and creativity.
Throughout the day, many speakers picked up the thread of political participation, describing other forms of disenfranchisement from processes that should be open to them. A representative of the Disability Caucus pointed to the right to suffrage for indigenous persons with disabilities, noting that many countries did not have a birth registry for them, which negated their existence vis-à-vis the State and made it impossible for them to acquire an identity card in order to vote.
Josefina Garcia Hernandez, an indigenous parliamentarian from Mexico said while there had been several legal and other reforms over the last 20 years, more changes were needed to ensure that countries were truly inclusive, notably through enforcement of laws that respected the traditional knowledge and cultural history of indigenous communities.
Another speaker, representing the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People said his home was becoming “the frontline of international confrontation”, where Crimean Tatars were subjected to new conditions against their will. He said Tatars must be officially recognized as the indigenous peoples of Crimea and fully involved in all processes, including at the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); measures must be taken to ensure their immediate safety and that of their leaders and representative bodies. “We have no other homeland to turn to,” he stressed, noting that last week, Crimean authorities had denied them the right to assemble, under the pretext of security concerns. “We will not keep silent. We are aware of our rights to freedom of speech, conscience and peaceful protest.”
In response, a representative of the Russian Federation, speaking as an observer, said today’s discussion was devoted to working methods, and as the previous statement was not part of the agenda, it should not be reflected in the report.
Intervening, Forum Chair Dalee Sambo Dorough said that since delegates had already heard an update on the Crimean Tatar’s situation, his statement and that of the Russian Federation delegate would indeed be reflected in the meeting’s proceedings.
Expressing frustration at an unsuccessful attempt to initiate dialogue with Governments, a representative of Yamasi said indigenous peoples’ political participation depended on their ability to debate with the colonial Powers that had subordinated their rights through fraud and corruption. Another recalled that, at the meeting on 20 May, the Forum Chair had suggested that the United States’ Government discuss with Yamasi reparations with regard to the Oglala and a $2.6 billion embezzlement case related to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The speaker said her attempt to do so had been rejected.
Forum Chair Dorough again stressed the need for dialogue between organizations and Governments. She urged the United States’ Government and Yamasi to engage in a dialogue. “There’s nothing that prevents you from demonstrating mutual respect consistent with the decorum of this Forum,” she added.
Throughout the day, Government representatives, attending as observers, addressed a range of issues. Responding to findings in the report on democracies and electoral processes, Ecuador’s speaker said the document had failed to reflect, or poorly referenced, some positive developments, which was unacceptable. He reiterated his Government’s support for the Forum’s work and recommendations and reiterated its commitment to indigenous peoples’ rights, as well as to the upcoming World Conference.
Among those elaborating on national developments was Argentina’s representative, who highlighted State initiatives and laws that renewed and protected indigenous peoples in such areas as bilingual education and land ownership and management. Chile’s speaker said national policies must be rooted in the Declaration to ensure that decisions impacting indigenous communities would never again be taken without them. His country’s ambitious agenda was based on respect and rights, with an emphasis on rectifying that historical exclusion.
Some Government speakers pointed to areas that needed a sharper focus, such as South Africa’s delegate. Urging greater awareness of pertinent issues, he recommended that the Forum support, among other things, a study on land rights.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, Chairperson of the Expert Mechanism, recalled the various proposals and changes in the name of the Forum and title of the Special Rapporteur. Today, indigenous and Government speakers alike broadly supported the body’s proposed name change to “Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”, with some saying the new title more accurately reflected its scope.
“We are peoples, human beings with rights, not issues,” he said, urging the Economic and Social Council to approve the proposed change prior to the World Conference in September.
The Forum also considered a draft agenda for its fourteenth session.
Forum members from Canada and Bolivia also spoke.
Also speaking were representatives of the following indigenous organizations: Asociacion Kuna Unidos por Nabguana; Red de Mujeres Indigenas sobre Biodiversidad de America Latina; National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organizations; L’auravetl’an Information and Education Network of Indigenous People (LIENIP); Cultural Survival; United Methodist Church; World Council of Churches; Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON); Tebtebba; Asian Indigenous; Amerindian Peoples Association, on behalf of the Forest Peoples Programme; the Rainforest Foundation US; and the Organisation of Kalina and Lokono Indigenous in Marowijne.
Also Tribal Link; International Indian Treaty Council; Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN); World Youth Alliance; Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation; Khmer Kampuchea Krom Temple; New Future Foundation, Inc.; Treasureland Health Builders; Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto; Banowaon Manobo Talaandig Tribal Council; Assyrian Aid Society; National Toshaos Council of Guyana; Indigenous Peoples of the North; Siberia and the Far East Russian Federation; Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas-Campesinas de Bolivia (COINCABOL); Finnish Sami Youth Organization; Sami Council; and Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago.
Intervening were Government speakers, attending as observers, from Greenland, on behalf of Denmark; Chile; Ecuador; South Africa; Argentina; Colombia; Russian Federation; Botswana; and Mexico.
A representative of the European Union delegation also delivered a statement.
The Forum will reconvene at 3 p.m. Friday, 23 May to conclude its thirteenth session.