Some 370 million indigenous peoples around the world were being dispossessed of lands their ancestors had called home for generations, speakers in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues stressed today, as they opened their seventeenth session amid calls to protect their collective rights to natural resources.
Opening the 2018 session — held under the theme “Indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources” — Permanent Forum Chair Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine said lands and resources were the sources of spiritual, cultural and collective identities, and formed the basis of economic livelihoods. “Our land and resources are our life,” she stressed, “not mere commodities”.
(For background on the session, see press release HR/5386.)
But only a few countries had recognized or made efforts to uphold indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources, she said. Even where recognized, necessary procedures — such as demarcation and titling — often were not undertaken, while land security continued to be a problem. Defenders were targeted for objecting to land expropriation and resource extraction without free, prior and informed consent. Without protection, indigenous peoples risked falling behind in efforts to attain the Sustainable Development Goals.
General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák said that even when indigenous peoples did hold on to their territories, their land was degraded around them, at times because of human activity, at times by climate change. They often lacked access to decent housing and schools, and were excluded from the very systems that should protect them. Comprising just 5 per cent of the world population, they represented 15 per cent of most poor. “That is shocking,” he said.
Against that backdrop, Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, encouraged the Forum to continue to engage with other Council bodies to address diverse challenges in multiple spheres. “If indigenous land rights are not respected, the future of indigenous peoples is jeopardized,” she stressed. Discussions over the coming weeks would be critical to ensuring that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was advanced.
Evo Morales Ayma, President of Bolivia, noted that his country had been the first to ratify the Declaration and enshrine the rights of Mother Earth into the Constitution. Since the European invasion of 1942, indigenous peoples had been defending their dignity and striving for equality. “We are members of a family struggling for its liberation,” he said, noting that while it was important to mobilize socially, it was equally vital to recover political power.
In the afternoon, speakers from indigenous peoples’ groups, United Nations experts and Government representatives addressed those concerns within the Permanent Forum’s six mandated areas: economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.
The speaker from the Inuit Circumpolar Council, noting that 70 per cent of Nunavut Inuit identified Inuit as their mother tongue, said all 42 schools in the area but operated in English. “Our Inuit children do not see themselves reflected in the majority of the teachers,” she said.
Citing similar concerns over non-recognition of linguistic diversity, the speaker from the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee said the continent’s 1,000 indigenous languages required urgent assistance to save them from extinction. He requested regional Governments to respond to the demands of the Amazigh cultural movement for language equality.
With that in mind, Estonia’s delegate cited the “Kindred Peoples” programme to support education among Finno-Ugric peoples. The village of Mari had been chosen as the capital of culture for 2019, he said, stressing that indigenous peoples possessed irreplaceable elements of Estonia’s roots and inheritance.
Also speaking on the six mandated areas were speakers from the following indigenous peoples organizations: Inuit Circumpolar Council, Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Sámi Parliament in Norway, Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation (RAIPON), Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazonica, Congrès Mondial Amazigh, Organizacion de Pueblos Indigenas de la Amazonia Colombiana, and the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee
Permanent Forum experts from the Russian Federation and Norway also spoke, as did the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Also participating in observer status were representatives of Sweden (on behalf of the Nordic countries), Russian Federation, Mexico and Australia.
Experts from the Convention on Biological Diversity, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Pan-American Health Organization/World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) also made interventions.
Also today, the Permanent Forum held an interactive dialogue with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights implications of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste.
It also elected by acclamation Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine (Mali) as Chair of its seventeenth session. Anne Nuorgam (Finland), Dimitri Harakka (Russian Federation), Tarcila Rivera Zea (Peru) and Xaioan Zhang (China) were elected Vice-Chairs, while Brian Keane (United States) was elected Rapporteur.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 17 April, to continue its seventeenth session.
TADODAHO SID HILL, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, delivered the annual ceremonial welcome to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, focusing first on the sky world, where Grandfather Thunder, Grandmother Moon and Grand Ancestors the Stars carried out their duties night and day “to take care of us”. He also gave thanks to the Four Protectors in the sky world and the leader, the Handsome Lake, acknowledging that between the Earth and the sky world, there was compassion for us all. “We bring our minds together as one mind to thank our creator in the sky world,” he said.
MIROSLAV LAJČÁK, President of the General Assembly, said that, while the United Nations was of and for people, that was not always reflected in meetings and events. He welcomed the outreach to indigenous people. Recalling the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, he said that the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples held in 2014 was a big step forward, although a lot of progress still had to be made to build stronger partnerships between indigenous peoples and the United Nations. After two years of discussions, the General Assembly had decided to create a new space for interactive hearings, which should find a way to break down barriers to indigenous peoples’ participation in the work of the United Nations. The first hearing would take place the following day. “The steps taken by the General Assembly so far had had good results. But we cannot yet say that this Organization has opened its doors wide enough,” he said.
Recent progress could not hide bleak facts on the ground, he said. At 370 million, indigenous people comprised 5 per cent of the global population. Yet the made up 15 per cent of the world’s poorest people. “That is shocking.” They also grappled with human rights violations, a lack of decent housing and schools, exclusion, marginalization, violence and even death just for asserting their basic rights. Indigenous people were losing lands, territories and resources they depended on for survival. Even when they could hold onto their own territories, they were degraded by human activities or climate change.
Some positive signs existed, however, he said, noting that United Nations teams were developing stronger partnerships with indigenous peoples to make their communities stronger and peace agreements stick, such as in the western town of Totoro in Colombia. At the national level, many States had deepened their engagement with indigenous peoples, and new laws and policies had been adopted to help protect and promote their rights. Some countries even recognized indigenous institutions facilitating better interaction between indigenous peoples and national policymakers.
While the United Nations resolutions and speeches emphasized the rights of indigenous peoples, recognized their value and heritage and encourage greater integration and participation in the decisions affecting them, the reality for indigenous peoples was very different to how it sounded on paper. “None of our resolutions talk about their desperation. None of our speeches give credit to their pain,” he said, stressing: “They deserve more than words.”
INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said this year’s theme, “Indigenous peoples’ collective right to lands, territories and resources”, illustrated that indigenous peoples continued to fight for recognition of their rights to own, manage and develop their traditional lands, territories and resources. “Indigenous peoples have much to contribute through their deep understanding of and connection with the land,” she said, as they had managed the environment sustainably for generations.
As an advisory body, the Permanent Forum provided expert advice and she encouraged it to continue to engage with Council bodies to address diverse challenges in multiple spheres. “If indigenous land rights are not respected, the future of indigenous peoples is jeopardized,” he stressed. Discussions over the coming weeks would be critical to ensuring that the Declaration was advanced as the world carried out the Sustainable Development Goals.
EVO MORALES AYMA, President of Bolivia, said that, after the European invasion of 1492, indigenous peoples’ North American forefathers had launched a major resistance campaign to defend the continent. The greatest social force had been that of the indigenous peoples, defending dignity and struggling for equality. “We are members of a family struggling for its liberation,” he said, noting that while it was important to mobilize socially, it was equally vital to recover political power. Bolivia, thanks to national unity, had started to shake off external domination.
“Unity is important,” he reiterated, noting that indigenous peoples in Bolivia had previously been called “ethnic groups”. However, they were nationalities. Their languages were called “languages”, not “dialects”. The terms “brother” and “sister” described us all as descendants of Mother Earth. “Some in the West don’t understand this,” he said, and instead held on to a mentality of superiority. Their policies sought to gather capital in the hands of the few, in disregard of Mother Earth.
Indigenous peoples were the victors of brotherliness and policies of both complementarity and solidarity, he said, insisting that “We want to live in harmony with Mother Earth”. But the planet was being humiliated by the capitalist system, and without change, it would be difficult to guarantee life for all human beings. He wondered how countries could pursue policies of intervention and humiliation, raping natural resources. “With your participation, we can set firmly in the United Nations the rights of Mother Earth”, he said, noting that Bolivia had been the first to ratify the Declaration and enshrine those rights in its Constitution.
MARIAM WALLET ABOUBAKRINE (Mali), Chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said lands and resources were the sources of spiritual, cultural and collective identities and formed the basis of economic livelihoods. The collective rights to those resources were firmly guaranteed by the Declaration. That tradition was part of indigenous peoples’ history and heritage, but often stood in contrast with dominant models of individual ownership, privatization and development.
Unfortunately, she said, only a few countries had recognized or made efforts to uphold indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources. Even where recognized, the enforcement of laws was often lacking altogether, with contradictory legislation affecting those fundamental freedoms. Necessary procedures, such as demarcation and titling, often were not undertaken, while the security of land and resource rights continued to be a problem. Defenders continued to be targeted for raising their voices and protecting indigenous peoples’ rights against land expropriation and resource extraction without free, prior and informed consent.
“Our land and resources are our life,” she stressed, “not mere commodities”. Without protection, indigenous people risked falling behind in efforts to attain the Sustainable Development Goals. With that, she outlined the Permanent Forum’s programme over the coming weeks, which would feature discussion of the International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019, and of the follow-up to the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, and for the second year, the holding of an indigenous media zone.
ELLIOTT HARRIS, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, speaking on behalf of Liu Zhenmin, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said that indigenous peoples were at the vanguard of addressing environmental challenges based on the principles of sustainability, respect for Mother Earth, and a balanced approach to people-centred development. The Sustainable Development Goals made explicit references to indigenous people and highlighted principles they advocated such as clean water, sustainability and reducing inequalities.
“The international community has become increasingly open to indigenous peoples. This is the right thing to do, and it is the smart thing to do,” he said. It was right because indigenous peoples had the right to participate in decision-making at all levels, so they could determine their own development priorities, and smart because they had an enormous wealth of traditional knowledge, sustainable livelihoods and holistic world views that benefited everyone. The system-wide action plan on the rights of indigenous peoples launched in 2015 identified concrete measures to support implementation of the Declaration, he said, noting that country-level implementation was critical to make it a reality.
Follow-up to Recommendations of Permanent Forum
BASKUT TUNCAK, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights implications of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste, presented preliminary findings of a review of chemical and waste conventions, notably of banned pesticides on indigenous peoples. For decades, his mandate had reported on impacts of pollution and toxic chemicals on indigenous peoples, typically present on lands, territories and natural resources because of pervasive abuse of their rights. Indigenous peoples continued to be on the wrong side of the safe food, water and adequate housing divide.
Indeed, from the Arctic to Australia, from the Americas to Africa and Asia, indigenous peoples suffered from the adverse health impacts of pesticides, often from countries that had banned their use domestically, he said. The Basel, Stockholm, Rotterdam and other conventions had developed in a piecemeal fashion, to ensure that toxic chemicals did not violate indigenous peoples’ rights. Yet, progress had not kept pace with the chemical industry’s evolution.
He said the conventions were insufficient to protect human rights from toxic threats. Hundreds if not thousands of toxic processes were not regulated by global treaties, resulting in discriminatory practices among States, and children’s right for their best interests to be considered by the State had not been included under those treaties. Further, there was no recognition of the right to free, prior and informed consent, he said, stressing: “Indigenous peoples are not given the opportunity to consent under the [Rotterdam] convention, only the State.” The right to security of the person and self-determination also were not reflected.
“Now is the time to develop a stronger, more ambitious global regime for toxic chemicals and waste,” he said. Sweden and Brazil had called for legally and non-legally binding provisions and he urged the Permanent Forum to advocate a legally binding regime.
In response to questions from the representative of Guatemala, as well as speakers from the International Indian Treaty Council and the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, Mr. TUNCAK encouraged the United States and Mexico to engage in dialogue with the Treaty Council, on the case relating to “horrible” toxic chemicals that had been used abundantly without proper precautions. He welcomed efforts made by the International Treaty Council in advancing an international mechanism on repatriation of sacred objects and human remains.
Implementation of the Permanent Forum’s Six Mandated Areas
AISA MUKABENOVA, Permanent Forum expert from the Russian Federation, expressed concern over the loss of indigenous people’s languages and recalled the Permanent Forum’s work over the years on that issue. Indigenous languages were linked to indigenous lands as a system of traditional knowledge to ensure the sustainable development of territories. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had developed an action plan to address that issue, and concrete proposals, including for financing, had been requested to implement it. Language issues were critical for people trying to preserve their identity.
IRMGARDA KASINSKAITE-BUDDEBERG, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, then presented the UNESCO action plan for the International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019. The plan invited all stakeholders to take concrete actions to revitalize and maintain indigenous languages, to preserve them and to maintain the values of indigenous languages and cultures within a broader sociocultural, economic and political context. “Indigenous languages matter for social, economic, political development, peaceful coexistence and reconciliation of societies,” she concluded.
ALICE BAH KUHNKE (Sweden), speaking on behalf of the Nordic countries, said that promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples remained longstanding priorities for the group. The Swedish Government was in the process of drafting a proposal for a more comprehensive procedure for consultations between public authorities and the Sami people. Norway, Finland and Sweden had agreed on a Nordic Sami Convention as one way to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The convention was under consideration in the Sami Parliaments in the different countries and a positive outcome was hoped for. In Denmark, the Act of Greenland Self-Government had facilitated the transfer of a long range of competences and responsibilities to the Self-Government authorities and ensured consultation procedures regarding regulation relevant to the island. The Act furthermore described Greenland’s access to independence, stipulating that if the people of Greenland voted in favour of independence, negotiations were to begin between the Danish Government and Naalakkersuisut on the matter.
JENS DAHL, Permanent Forum expert from Denmark, said that to save an indigenous language, indigenous people must speak it at home, and further, take ownership of their language within their communities. There were a number of indigenous linguists involved in language conservation and he suggested creating a data system of linguists involved in such pursuits.
ALEXEY TSYKAREV (Russian Federation), Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, welcomed the draft action plan presented today, stressing the importance of a strong presence of indigenous peoples on the steering committee. He had worked with the Human Rights Council on its thematic resolution welcoming the Assembly’s proclamation of the International Year. In addition to such activities, national task forces and action plans were needed to uphold that Year.
ALUKI KOTIERK, Inuit Circumpolar Council, said she represented Inuit-speaking people in Nunavut, Canada. Nunavut would soon mark 25 years since its land claims were signed with the Crown. While her language was among the stronger indigenous languages — and 70 per cent of Nunavut Inuit identified it as their mother tongue — many indigenous people who spoke Inuit were not receiving equitable public services. In Nunavut, there were 42 schools, all operating in English, except one, which operated in French. There were 452 English-speaking teachers, numbering more than students in English speaking schools. “Our Inuit children do not see themselves reflected in the majority of the teachers,” she said. Noting that Canada had worked to strip indigenous peoples of their culture, she welcomed the Declaration’s articles 13 and 14 in particular to preserve indigenous languages.
FERNANDO HUANACUNI MAMANI (Bolivia) said that since 2006 Bolivia had carried out a deep transformation towards a pluri-national State in which indigenous people were an integral part. Today’s modern world with capitalism as a structure had robbed people of the sensitivity they should have for one another. Recovering indigenous languages meant recovering indigenous spirituality as indigenous languages did not only convey ideas but also deep feelings. That recovery would allow indigenous people to return to good health and to community languages, away from individual language.
The representative from the Convention on Biological Diversity, said that to date the Permanent Forum’s programme of work had produced significant results, including the composite report on the status and trends of traditional knowledge; guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessments; the Tkarihwaié:ri Code of Ethical Conduct to Ensure Respect for the Cultural and Intellectual Heritage of Indigenous and Local Communities and the Global Plan of Action on the Customary Sustainable Use of Biological Diversity; and the Mo’otz Kuxtal Voluntary Guidelines on Traditional Knowledge.
CHIEF WILTON LITTLECHILD, Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, drew attention to the importance of preserving languages. The Organization of American States declaration, for the first time, underscored the connection between indigenous languages, lands and indigenous spirituality. “Indigenous peoples have right to freely exercise their own spiritually and beliefs,” he said, citing that declaration, particularly in the context of education. Tribal schools should not be impeded from carrying out that right.
The representative of Canada said the Government was unafraid to try bold approaches to old problems, citing a tuberculosis elimination framework in an Inuit speaking area. Bold approaches were needed to protect the Inuit language. CHIEF EDWARD JOHN, also a former Permanent Forum member from Canada, speaking on behalf of the Government, recommended that by no later than the Assembly’s seventy-fifth session the voices of 370 million indigenous peoples must be heard in the United Nations, taking the floor at all high-level events. The President’s three interactive sessions with indigenous peoples should proceed in good faith.
KIRI TOKI, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), said that its capacity-building programme for indigenous peoples intended to help them grasp issues due to lack of protection, understand the nature and scope of the existing intellectual property-related tools, and define the approach that would be best in line with their objectives and own development.
HEGE FJELLHEIM, from the Sami Parliament of Norway, said that the Samediggis in Norway, Sweden and Finland had been working on a project to establish common terminology and language standards to ensure the Sami language didn’t develop in different directions in their respective countries.
KRISTINA SUKACHEVA (Russian Federation) said that almost 60 per cent of the autonomous district spoke in northern indigenous languages. She cited a regional television programme and national language broadcasting for at least 1.5 hours a day in that context. Further, young people were translating comics into their original languages and producing their own works. Targeted work was needed to preserve languages of the northern peoples. The government of the autonomous district supported the Permanent Forum’s declaration of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. By preserving cultural diversity we preserve cultural identity, she said.
SANDRA DEL PINO, Cultural Diversity Adviser of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (WHO), said that in 2017, after lengthy consultations, Governments in the Americas developed a policy for health needs, underscoring the need for an intercultural focus. To reduce neonatal and maternal mortality, for example, the organization was working with indigenous experts to develop safe child birth for indigenous women. It would evaluate and monitor the intercultural process of child birth and promoted strategies.
NINA VEISALOVA, Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation, highlighted the importance of indigenous languages as the binding link to indigenous land and history. The Russian Federation had held the first Congress of teachers of Indigenous Peoples. The risk of extinction was real and the indigenous languages must be spoken by and taught to youth.
ROBERTO SERRANO ALTAMIRANO (Mexico) said the concept of indigenous languages should extend to inter-institutional integration to take into account many aspects of indigenous culture in a cross-cutting fashion, such as education, human rights, health and democracy. The concept of language had to include oral language as well as graphic language, sounds, and many more manifestations of language.
The representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) shared findings of a study on the achievements and limits of the Permanent Forum’s recommendations with the goal of achieving progress on indigenous women’s rights, especially sexual and reproductive rights. It found that during its sixteenth session, the Forum made 1,260 recommendations to guarantee indigenous rights. Yet, only 16 per cent of them focused on the plight of indigenous women, young people and gender equality. Six per cent related to gender-based violence. Of the Forum’s 170 recommendations to improve indigenous women’s situations, only 10 had been reported as completed. Only 37 Member States had submitted reports from the annual sessions, and only Mexico had sent more than 10 reports. Even those reports focused on activities rather than results.
EDWIN VASQUEZ, Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indigenas de la Cuenca Amazonica, voiced concern over States that ignored Pachamama, building roads and growing palm and cocoa on his people’s lands. “We want deeds and results,” he said, “and to hear that our rights are defended.” He pressed the Forum to visit each of the regions. “You don’t consult us,” he said. “We’re imprisoned because we defend our lands and territories.”
TARIA TAHANA (New Zealand) supported the upcoming International Year and action plan to implement it, although she said it was not exclusive. Cultural attainment should be a central element of the plan so that indigenous peoples could succeed.
BELKACEM LOUNES, Congres Mondial Amazigh, said that indigenous peoples had to be allowed to speak their languages. In North Africa there was official and sometimes unofficial propaganda undermining indigenous languages. That was a racist act and it had to be condemned firmly. Indigenous languages were a form of wealth and it was urgent that all States removed all obstacles to ensure true equality of treatment between languages.
The representative of Guatemala welcomed the upcoming International Year and, being a supporter of indigenous languages, was entertaining ideas to support the Year with activities and projects. Guatemala had legislation supporting 22 Mayan languages.
CAROL GONZALES, Organizacion de Pueblos Indigenas de la Amazonia Colombiana, said Colombia was moving towards implementation of its recently signed peace accord. Violence continued against indigenous peoples defending their territories and they were often criminalized. In 2017, 37 people were assassinated. He requested the Permanent Forum’s help in building a joint agenda for countries to defend indigenous life. “We’ve built peace among indigenous territories and we want to defend the lives of our people,” he said.
The representative of Estonia said protection of indigenous peoples’ rights was a vital part of his country’s policies. Indigenous peoples possessed irreplaceable elements of Estonia’s roots and inheritance. In several countries, economic, social and cultural rights of indigenous peoples were not respected, especially those for land and natural resources. Estonia was a steadfast contributor to the voluntary fund for indigenous peoples. About 20 years ago, the Government had launched a kindred people’s programme to support education among Finno-Ugric peoples, he said, noting that the village of Mari was chosen as the capital of culture for 2019.
The representative of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee said the situation of indigenous languages in Africa required urgent international assistance to save them from extinction — and avoid a cultural tragedy. There were 1,000 indigenous languages in the six African regions, representing exceptional linguistic diversity. Governments’ non-recognition of them would accelerate their disappearance by the end of the century. Noting that the indigenous peoples of Africa were engaged in a peaceful struggle within the framework of the Declaration, he said Morocco and Algeria had recognized Amazigh after half a century ago. He requested regional Governments to respond to the demands of the Amazigh cultural movement for language equality.
IAN ANDERSON (Australia) supported a holistic approach to secure the rights of Indigenous peoples and welcomed the upcoming International Year.