Amid rapid globalization and the scramble for natural resources, indigenous peoples had become victims of violence and even genocide on their lands, often due to their distinct identities, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard today, as it opened its fifteenth session amid calls for their full participation in plans for peace and reconciliation that directly impacted their lives.
The session, held under the theme “Indigenous peoples: Conflict, Peace and Resolution”, will run through 20 May. Álvaro Pop, following his election as Chair of the fifteenth session, said even in peaceful societies, indigenous peoples were increasingly in situations that escalated to conflict around lands, territories and resources, or civil, political, cultural, social and economic rights.
Indigenous peoples were also experiencing militarization on their lands and, in nearly every region, being displaced by violence. “There can be no peace to these conflicts unless indigenous peoples are equal participants in any plans for peace and resolution,” he said. The focus must be on the rights enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “We will no longer sit by and allow lip service to be paid to the human rights of indigenous peoples,” he said.
In a video message, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon agreed that indigenous peoples were increasingly being drawn into conflicts over their lands, resources and rights. Lasting peace required that they have access to cultural, social and economic justice. In response, the United Nations had developed a system-wide action plan. “It is essential we work as one to realize the full rights of indigenous peoples,” he stressed.
Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said he was honoured to formally launch the United Nations plan for achieving the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples today. It aimed to raise awareness about and support implementation of the Declaration. All Resident Coordinators had been asked to share it with host Governments. “Now is the time for the United Nations system to work hand-in-hand with indigenous peoples and Member States,” he said.
Sven Jürgenson, Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, added that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offered the Forum an opportunity to ensure that indigenous peoples’ concerns and suggestions were fed into discussions on the Council’s main theme, “implementation of the 2030 Agenda: moving from commitments to results”, and that of the high-level political forum on leaving no one behind. “You are the experts — and we count on you to bring that expertise into the discussion,” he said.
Offering a Government perspective, Aura Leticia Teleguario, Minister for Labour and Social Prevention of Guatemala, said among the priorities for her country was the establishment of meaningful consultations with indigenous peoples. More than 87 consultative processes had been carried out since 2005, which focused on providing institutional and legal mechanisms aimed at preventing conflict. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister for Justice of Canada, stressed that reconciliation required laws to be changed and policies rewritten. “We intend to do so in full partnership,” she said.
In the afternoon, the Forum held three interactive dialogues in which experts outlined recommendations for respecting indigenous rights and presented related research. In the first, Oliver Loode, Permanent Forum member from Estonia, provided an update on implementation of the subsidiary organ’s recommendations, pointing to positive results when its recommendations contained specific, time-bound criteria, and difficulty in acting upon those that were generic with unclear recipients.
In the second, Alisa Mukabenova, Permanent Forum member from the Russian Federation, said many language-related recommendations were aimed at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which she hoped would take a more active, comprehensive approach to indigenous languages.
In the third, Valmaine Toki, Permanent Forum member from New Zealand, presented a study on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Pacific Ocean, while Dalee Sambo Dorough, Permanent Forum member from Alaska, presented a study on how States exploited weak procedural rules in international organizations to devaluate the United Nations Declaration and other international human rights law.
Also today, the Forum elected Alvaro Pop as Chair of the session, as well as Mariam Wallet Mohamed Aboubakrine, Aysa B. Mukabenova, Dalee Sambo Dorough and Raja Devasish Roy as Vice-Chairs and Oliver Loode as Rapporteur. It also adopted its agenda for the session, as orally revised.
Chief Tadodaho Sid Hill, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, delivered the annual ceremonial welcome to participants.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 10 May, to continue its fifteenth session.
MOGENS LYKKETOFT (Denmark), President of the General Assembly, noted that two years ago, the General Assembly had held the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. At that event, Member States had reaffirmed their commitment to support, respect, promote, advance and in no way diminish the rights of indigenous peoples and uphold the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It included a commitment to conduct consultations on possible measures to enable the participation of indigenous peoples’ representatives and institutions in meetings of relevant bodies of the United Nations. In February, he appointed four advisers to assist him in conducting those consultations and in April had circulated the first draft compilation of views expressed during initial consultations, with the aim of reaching a final text to be adopted by the General Assembly during its seventy-first session.
Since taking office, he had sought to advance openness, transparency and inclusion in how the General Assembly conducted its work, which included the ability of indigenous peoples to engage at the United Nations on matters that affected them. Indigenous peoples had a right to contribute and could provide enriching input, despite being historically targeted and excluded, resulting in great harm to their communities, heritage and livelihoods, including their identity. The current consultation provided a historic opportunity for Member States to improve and strengthen the participation of indigenous peoples at the Organization.
SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said indigenous peoples had taken an active role in consultations and negotiations towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The results of that engagement were clear in the framework which — apart from the six direct references to indigenous peoples — included priorities of equality, non-discrimination, human rights and protection of mother Earth. In that way, the Sustainable Development Goals were a step forward for indigenous peoples. This year was one of implementation, of the 2030 Agenda, as well as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
He encouraged indigenous peoples to engage in that important process, and States to work with them. The 2030 Agenda offered the Permanent Forum a new responsibility in ensuring that indigenous peoples’ issues, concerns and suggestions were fed into discussions on the Council’s main theme, “implementation of the 2030 Agenda: moving from commitments to results”, and that of the high-level political forum on “leaving no one behind”.
“You are the experts — and we count on you to bring that expertise into the discussion,” he said. The Forum embodied the endeavour to peacefully address difficult and contentious issues by bringing indigenous peoples, Member States and United Nations agencies together in a spirit of dialogue, cooperation and openness. It offered a safe space to meet, and through that helped to improve the relationship between indigenous peoples and Governments. The recommendations from discussions in the coming weeks would be particularly relevant for Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda on peaceful and inclusive societies. “Indigenous peoples have the same right to enjoy peace, security and human rights as anyone else,” he concluded.
ÁLVARO POP, Chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said that even in peaceful societies, indigenous peoples often found themselves involved in situations that escalated to conflict, primarily related to issues involving lands, territories and resources, or civil, political, cultural, social and economic rights. The rapid pace of globalization and processes to identify new venues for resource exploitation had accelerated such conflict on indigenous peoples’ land. Indigenous peoples were also increasingly experiencing armed conflicts and militarization on their lands. In nearly every region of the world, indigenous peoples were being displaced and severely impacted by violence and militarism.
In some countries, indigenous peoples had become victims of violence, massacres or even genocide due to their distinct identities, he said. Women and children were often most vulnerable and suffered the most. “There can be no peace to these conflicts unless indigenous peoples are equal participants in any plans for peace and resolution,” he emphasized. Efforts must be made to emphasize the rights enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its legally-binding status. The international community must ensure that endorsing the Declaration publicly and internationally continued at the domestic level. “We will no longer sit by and allow lip service to be paid to the human rights of indigenous peoples,” he said.
WU HONGBO, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, for which he was the senior United Nations official to coordinate follow-up, included important mandates for the Organization. “We take these mandates very seriously,” he said. One of them was to develop a system-wide action plan for ensuring a coherent approach for achieving the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Over the past 10 months, the United Nations had worked through the Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues to prepare that plan.
He was honoured to formally launch the plan today, he said, stressing: “Clearly more needs to be done to raise awareness about the Declaration and about the situation of indigenous peoples throughout the world.” The plan aimed to support the implementation of the Declaration, and as such, his Department had sent the plan to all United Nations Resident Coordinators asking them to share it with host Governments. The plan also called for promoting indigenous peoples’ rights in the implementation and review of the 2030 Agenda.
“Now is the time for the United Nations system to work hand-in-hand with indigenous peoples and Member States for the common good,” he said. There was much work to be done. Indigenous peoples continued to suffer disproportionately from poverty, discrimination, poor health care and inadequate education. Those challenges were serious, but with concerted efforts, “we can make a difference.”
AURA LETICIA TELEGUARIO, Minister for Labour and Social Prevention of Guatemala, said the Forum served as an open door towards sharing the realities of indigenous peoples in the world. The Forum allowed for the merging of ideas around the promotion of the collective rights of peoples. Guatemala recognized that the rights of indigenous peoples in the world were fundamental to the search for comprehensive development. It was the responsibility of the State to ensure the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In Guatemala, deep-seated changes were under way, including with regard to Government transparency and the provision of services, she said. The challenge was to continue to make progress in political participation and decision-making, to allow the shift from resistance to power. In Guatemala, public policy would focus on the most vulnerable populations, many of which were indigenous. Her country had re-established the Cabinet of Indigenous Peoples, which was a high-level institutional mechanism that would ensure that the plans and programmes of the Government had cultural relevance. Legal, administrative and budgetary changes needed to be made that would adapt institutions appropriately; taking into account cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity in the country.
She said that among the key priority areas for Guatemala was the establishment of meaningful consultations with indigenous peoples. More than 87 consultative processes had been carried out since 2005, which focused on providing institutional and legal mechanisms aimed at preventing conflict and ensuring the safeguarding of all peoples. Efforts would continue to bring about significant changes in the years to come, including with regard to full development, in line with the objectives laid out in the 2030 Agenda.
JODY WILSON-RAYBOULD, Minister for Justice of Canada, noting that her people were from the country’s west coast, said she was here today also as the Attorney General of Canada, an appointment that spoke volumes about how far the State had come and how far it intended to go. She was among a record number of indigenous members of Parliament elected in October — a real change from times when indigenous peoples were discouraged from fully participating in society. She was proud to be part of a Government whose leader had made a solemn commitment to change with a vision for true reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
Indeed, she said, he had tasked all ministers to rebuild the nation-to-nation relationship, stating in public letters that no relationship was more important to him — and to Canada — than that with indigenous peoples. It was time to renew relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership. That was perhaps the most challenging area of public policy and the work was long-overdue. “We must complete the unfinished business of confederation, rebuilding the nation-to-nation relationship,” she said, and finding solutions to decades-long problems.
That said, the Administration of Indian Affairs was not organized around indigenous nations, she stressed, but rather, an imposed system of governance. It was essential to move beyond that system through the available legal tools. The Government would breathe life into section 35 of the Constitution, which reaffirmed existing aboriginal and treaty rights. The challenge was to translate hard-won rights into meaningful benefits within indigenous communities. It was not easy to throw off the shackles of 140 years of the Indian Act system.
Noting that indigenous communities were in a transition of nation-building and rebuilding, she said the Government’s job was to support them. One legal question was around how to implement free, prior and informed consent, as the Declaration recognized that indigenous peoples had individual and collective rights, with their participation in decision-making at its heart. A new nation-to-nation relationship was needed. Reconciliation required laws to change and policies to be rewritten.
“We intend to do so in full partnership,” she said, underlining the need for a national action plan and more effective ways of both recognizing indigenous nations and providing support for those able to move beyond the status quo. Communities must receive necessary services, including by developing new fiscal relationships with indigenous governments. Indigenous peoples must be empowered to retake control of their lives, with the full support of all Canadians.
In the afternoon, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples gathered for a series of interactive discussions.
OLIVER LOODE, Permanent Forum member from Estonia, opening the first discussion, provided a presentation on the implementation of the recommendations made during the last session of the Forum and noted that 20 out 40 recommendations had been selected for follow-up action. He noted that the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs had updated the Forum on progress towards guaranteeing indigenous peoples the ability to participate in the preparation and coordination of the system-wide action plan. On the recommendation for States and indigenous peoples to establish a working group to prepare a manual of good practices for the repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains, substantial progress had been made. He highlighted that the final Declaration for the 2030 Agenda included six references to indigenous peoples and several indicators and priorities brought forward by indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, although those were positive developments, States had fallen short in addressing indigenous issues in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals.
He went on to highlight that the recommendation addressing youth self-harm and suicide had not yet been implemented, although there had been notable developments, particularly within the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural). Forum members remained hopeful that the World Health Organization (WHO) would prioritize the issue going forward. In that regard, he requested that WHO designate a focal point to work with the Forum. He then turned to the recommendation requesting Member States to ensure indigenous peoples’ rights to participate in decision-making, particularly within the three major multilateral negotiations in 2015, including those on the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement and the Addis Action Agenda. The Forum was disappointed that its priorities were not more strongly reflected in the final outcome of those processes. The recommendation on the rights of indigenous women had enjoyed significant progress, he reported, including its consideration at the sixtieth session of the Commission on the Status of Women. He noted the direct reference to indigenous women, including their distinct and important contributions to sustainable development, contained within the Agreed Conclusions emanating from the latest Commission session.
The representative of Ukraine, in the ensuing discussion, noted that starting in the 1980’s activists had fought to help Crimean Tartars return to their rightful lands, culture and languages following many years of repression. However, the recent annexation of Crimea had resulted in many media services being shut down, including those that had been broadcasting in the indigenous languages of Crimea.
Also speaking in the discussion was a representative of the International Indian Treaty Council.
ALISA MUKABENOVA, Permanent Forum member from the Russian Federation, noted that currently there were about 100 recommendations on the preservation of indigenous languages up for consideration. A meeting of experts was held on linguistic diversity and the important role of families and women for the transmission of languages over time. Indigenous peoples in many countries continued to suffer under discriminatory policies stemming from colonial times. In Canada, specific studies had been conducted to examine the role of boarding schools in the systemic violation of the rights of indigenous peoples. To overcome decades of destructive policies, indigenous peoples had put forward their own initiatives to launch projects to revitalize their mother tongues.
The expert panel group, she said, had paid special attention to the potential of modern communications technologies for preserving indigenous languages. She pointed to Google, which had developed software that made it possible to write in the traditional Cherokee language, making it possible to have original Cherokee content online. There were also many examples of the important role of non-governmental organizations in galvanizing outreach activities aimed at overcoming the widely held misunderstandings about indigenous languages. The experts had recommended the establishment of a global fund to support the preservation of indigenous languages and believed a network of organizations should be set-up to work with the Forum to monitor the status of languages at risk of extinction. It was necessary to provide moral and material support to help those who were working to teach and promote language in their countries and regions. Many language-related recommendations were aimed at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which the experts hoped would take a more active, comprehensive and proactive approach to indigenous languages.
During the ensuing discussion, a number of Government representatives described national efforts to preserve indigenous languages and culture and to uphold the right of indigenous groups to education. A number of speakers said language preservation should be viewed as a critical element of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The representative of the government of Greenland said practicing the Greenlandic language, Kalaallisut, was a way of manifesting and developing cultural heritage. While past educational policies had favoured Danish over Kalaallisut, Greenlanders were now working to revitalize the language. Among other things, the teaching of Greenlandic as a first language was being modernized and made more results-oriented.
The representative of UNESCO said linguistic diversity was an important part of cultural diversity. “Languages provide us a vantage point from which we can understand our past,” he said in that regard. Nevertheless, there remained many communities around the world that were unable to access information in their own languages. Citing a 2003 UNESCO recommendation concerning the promotion and use of multilingualism in cyberspace, he said information and communications technologies (ICTs) and the Internet had a key role to play in promoting a pluralistic linguistic society.
KARA-KYS ARAKCHAA, a Permanent Forum member from the Russian Federation, said in the Republic of Crimea many schools were taught in the Crimean Tatar languages, which were studied by more than 10,000 pupils.
Also speaking was the representative of the Russian Federation.
VALMAINE TOKI, Permanent Forum member from New Zealand, presented a summary of her study on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Pacific Ocean, taking into account issues of governance, the effects of climate change, deep sea mining, resources and sustainable development (document E/C.19/2016/3). Underscoring that the intrinsic relationship of indigenous peoples with lands and oceans was enshrined in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, she said the 9.5 million indigenous inhabitants of the South Pacific relied on the ocean for sustenance. However, pollution and climate change imposed on their rights and threatened to destroy their culture. If no effective action was taken, relocation would be the only alternative.
Describing the situation of two Pacific small islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu, she said the latter was facing a 20-40 cm annual sea level rise and would become uninhabitable in the near future. Those States had been active participants in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations and were members of the Alliance of Small Island States. Turning briefly to the mining sector, she gave the example of Papua New Guinea, where mining was being lauded as an economic success story. However, indigenous people had seen little of those benefits and their land was suffering. In that regard, she stressed the importance of free, prior and informed consent as well as the meaningful indigenous participation in all decisions that affected them.
DALEE SAMBO DOROUGH, Permanent Forum member from Alaska, presented a study on how States exploit weak procedural rules in international organizations to devaluate the United Nations Declaration and other international human rights law (document E/C.19/2016/4). The Declaration must be the framework to guide all State party action, she said, stressing that countries had the responsibility to uphold indigenous rights and refrain from actions that infringed on them. Procedural rules of intergovernmental organizations must be strengthened and there must be consistency between the international legal obligations of States and national contexts. While some States and international organizations had strong policies in place with regards to indigenous peoples, she said that when States negotiated new international instruments, the rights and status of indigenous peoples were frequently overlooked and their participation marginalized.
States parties could not evade their international human rights obligations, she stressed in that respect, citing a number of examples of poor practice. The policy of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on indigenous and tribal peoples, while strong, nevertheless allowed Member States to take positions that fell short of existing human rights standards. Meanwhile, the World Bank had sought consensus on a proposal to allow States to opt out of an indigenous safeguard policy. It was critical that international organizations and Member States inform themselves about indigenous peoples’ rights, she said, emphasizing that the procedures of intergovernmental organizations must be strengthened to prevent States from opting out of their obligations to protect indigenous human rights.
In the ensuring discussion, participants stressed that language was essential to indigenous peoples’ identity and the strength of their communities. All students benefitted from learning indigenous languages, notably through greater understanding of country and culture, which could lead to reconciliation. Speakers underscored the need for States to provide long-term funding for indigenous languages, with some stressing that they should also allow and facilitate private funding to do so.
Several representatives of indigenous peoples took the floor, with a representative of an indigenous community in Los Angeles noting that local education authorities had compared the lives of indigenous youth in his area to having post-traumatic stress syndrome, as they lacked resources to overcome the challenges they faced. He asked how the Forum could advance indigenous children’s rights when the guidelines it proposed sought to restrict indigenous peoples’ right to self-recognition and self-determination.
A speaker from an Amazonian community, noting that her language was spoken by fewer than 500 people, said she was working to maintain her language with the support of volunteers. The Forum should recommend that indigenous peoples lead language revitalization efforts with State support, and that countries allow them to do so. Resident Coordinators should report on efforts to protect indigenous languages that were disappearing.
An indigenous representative of the Mohawk Language Custodian Association said that while assimilation and doctrines of superiority had been condemned, the United Nations still had to press States to uphold their commitments in that regard. “Stop the dispossession of our lands,” she declared, urging a moratorium on any development that impacted traditional lands, resources and forms of governance. Free, prior and informed consent must be practiced. “Language has a spirit,” she said. “When we lose our language, we lose who we are as indigenous peoples.”
An indigenous speaker from the Fiji Islands spoke about efforts to devalue the Fijian culture, which had started with the imposition of the 2013 Constitution, for which there had been no free, prior and informed consent. The Constitution had removed “everything indigenous”, including the great council of chiefs, and outlined 17 decrees that had taken away indigenous land and sea resources. “I welcome the report on the preservation of languages, but it is not happening in Fiji,” she said.
Government representatives also took part in the discussion, with the representative of Canada, expressing her country’s full support for the Declaration and its implementation.
The representative of Australia said the nature and extent of native rights of Torres Strait Islanders referred to that community’s traditional laws and customs. Her Government was proud to provide financial support to countries to address climate change impacts. It was also working to strengthen ocean management, including though sustainable fishing operations
The representative of the Russian Federation said assertions in the report on the use of rules in international organizations to denigrate the Declaration lacked any legal foundation. He could not agree that existing rules of procedures did not comply with international standards on indigenous rights. The authors had forgotten that meetings, seminars and conferences had been held to consider indigenous peoples’ rights. The Forum should be more professional in preparing its conclusions and recommendations.
A number of Forum members offered their views. Joseph Goko Mutangah, Forum member from Kenya, underscored the need to strengthen informal and formal institutions for teaching indigenous languages and disseminating indigenous traditions and knowledge. He suggested considering — and documenting — minority communities whose languages were disappearing every hour.
Oliver Loode, Forum member from Estonia, requested a recommendation about funding for indigenous languages by States.
Maria Eugenia Choque Quispe, Forum member from Ecuador, said traditional knowledge was being forgotten along with the loss of indigenous languages, especially knowledge of plants.
Dalee Sambo Dorough, Forum member from Alaska, responded to comments by the representative of the Russian Federation, noting that the study on how States exploit weak procedural rules had in fact been legally substantiated. She cited the Charter of the United Nations, and the “range” of General Assembly resolutions in that regard, including on equal application of the rule of law in the context of States and international organizations. In addition, indigenous peoples were not considered “parties” when an international organization’s activities were for the “Conference of Parties”, as in that for climate change negotiations.
Edward John, Forum member from Canada and co-author of the study on the procedural rules study, drew attention to commitments in International Labour Organization Convention 169, pressing the United Nations and Member States to work with indigenous peoples to uphold those rights and standards, and reflect their commitments in national action plans and system-wide action plans, as called for by the Declaration.
Alexey Taykarev, Expert, Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said losing a mother language could lead to mental problems, reduced quality of life, and in some cases depression and suicide. Language was a fundamental part of indigenous peoples’ cultural and material legacy. Many Member States — including those with significant indigenous populations — had not ratified the UNESCO convention on maintaining legacy and he urged consultations in that regard. He also hoped UNESCO would improve its indigenous peoples’ policy.