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HR/5458
19 April 2021
Twentieth Session, 1st Meeting (PM)

Recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Representative Institutions as ‘Serious Partners They Are’, Chair Stresses, as Permanent Forum Begins Session

Indigenous peoples have time and again shown themselves to be constructive partners with Member States and enrich the work of the United Nations, the Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues stressed today, as she opened the body’s 2021 session.

“Let us build on this and find a way for the United Nations to finally recognize indigenous peoples’ representative institutions as the serious partners that they are,” said Anne Nuorgam following her re-election as Chair.

She expressed hope that the General Assembly President will soon appoint facilitators from Member States and indigenous peoples to move forward with a process aimed at enhancing the participation of indigenous peoples in the United Nations system.

The annual session will run through 30 April under the special theme “Peace, justice and strong institutions:  the role of indigenous peoples in implementing Sustainable Development Goal 16”, she noted.

In his pre-recorded message to the opening session, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said that indigenous peoples represent 6.2 per cent of the world’s population, make up the greater part of the world’s cultural diversity and speak the major share of the world’s languages.

However, he pointed out that they are also three times more likely to live in extreme poverty, and their languages and cultures are under constant threat.  Urging implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he said:  “Indigenous peoples are indispensable to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Assembly President Volkan Bozkir (Turkey) said that the Permanent Forum provides a central channel for sharing first-hand experience, advice and recommendations on indigenous issues, which is essential to maintaining peace, justice and strong institutions.

The founders of the United Nations created a multilateral system based upon peace, justice, strong institutions, and the equal dignity and worth of each person, he continued.  Stressing the need to recommit to these principles, he said the voices of those who have been silenced must be heard.  “If we fail to realize this, we will not only fail indigenous communities, but everyone, everywhere,” he said.

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Department of Interior of the United States, stressed that the world can usher in a new era of peace, justice and strong institutions only by acknowledging the collective power of indigenous peoples, and by doing it together.  “I am honoured to be the first Native American US Cabinet secretary, and fully understand my responsibility to future generations, and indigenous peoples everywhere,” she said.

Also delivering opening remarks were Juan Sandoval Mendiolea (Mexico), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, Elliott Harris, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, David Choquehuanca Cespedes, Vice-President of Bolivia, and Pekka Haavisto, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland.

The Permanent Forum also heard the introduction of two notes by the Secretariat, “International expert group meeting on the theme ‘Peace, justice and strong institutions:  the role of indigenous peoples in implementing Sustainable Development Goal 16’” (document E/C.19/2020/7), by the Chair, and “Study on indigenous peoples’ autonomies:  experiences and perspectives” (document E/C.19/2020/5) by member Tove Søvndahl Gant (Denmark) and Jens Dahl, former member and the report’s author.  This was followed by an interactive discussion.

At the beginning of today’s meeting, the Permanent Forum watched a video presentation of the traditional ceremonial welcome by Chief Tadodaho Sid Hill of the Onondaga Nation, and then elected by acclamation Anne Nuorgam (Finland) as Chair and Vital Bambanze (Burundi), Irma Pineda Santiago (Mexico), Aleksei Tsykarev (Russian Federation) and Geoffrey Roth (United States) as Vice-Chairs.  The Forum also adopted the provisional agenda for the twentieth session as contained in document E/C.19/2021/1.

The Permanent Forum will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 20 April, to continue its session.

Opening Remarks

ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that indigenous peoples represent 6.2 per cent of the world’s population, making up the greater part of the world’s cultural diversity, and speak the major share of the world’s languages.  However, they are also three times more likely to live in extreme poverty, and their languages and cultures are under constant threat. Indigenous women and girls contend with higher rates of violence and experience disproportionately high levels of maternal and infant mortality.  Indigenous peoples have been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.  An already vulnerable group risks being left even further behind.  The lack of participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making has often meant their specific needs are overlooked or ignored, he pointed out, stressing that the road to recovery from the pandemic requires inclusion and sustainable development that protects and benefits all people.

Noting that indigenous peoples’ lands are among the world’s most biodiverse and resource rich, he warned that this has led to increased exploitation, conflicts over resources and land misuse.  Violence and attacks against indigenous leaders and women and men working to defend indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources have grown dramatically, he said, underscoring the need to do better at fostering inclusive and participatory laws and policies, and strong and accountable institutions that provide justice for all.  There is also a need to promote and uphold the right to health and to a healthy and sustainable environment, he said, urging implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  “Indigenous peoples are indispensable to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and their voices need to be heard,” he said.

VOLKAN BOZKIR (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, said that the pandemic has been particularly difficult for indigenous peoples, stressing the need to disseminate vaccines in a manner that is culturally appropriate and leaves no one behind.  A failure to do so will risk not only losing beloved members of communities but also the elders who uphold traditions, cultures and languages.  The intrinsic link between language and identity is one of great importance, and one which will be promoted throughout the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, beginning in 2022.  Socioeconomic recovery from the pandemic must address the impact that market closures and ecotourism disruption has had on indigenous peoples.  In addressing the climate crisis, the involvement of indigenous people is critical as they are the stewards of more than 80 per cent of biodiversity worldwide, he added.

Noting that the Permanent Forum provides a central channel for sharing first-hand experience, advice and recommendations on indigenous issues, which is essential to maintaining peace, justice and strong institutions, he urged all Member States to promote respect for, and fully apply, the provisions of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons.  Sustainable Development Goal 16 represents the original aspirations of the founders of the United Nations, as they set out to create a multilateral system founded upon peace, justice, strong institutions, and the equal dignity and worth of each person.  Stressing the need to recommit to these principles, he said the voices of those who have, for too long, been silenced must be heard.  “If we fail to realize this, we will not only fail indigenous communities, but everyone, everywhere,” he said.

JUAN SANDOVAL MENDIOLEA (Mexico), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said the COIVD-19 crisis quickly morphed into a human crisis, disproportionately impacting indigenous peoples.  Beyond the severe health toll, the pandemic has devastated livelihoods, severely affected access to education, exposed a digital divide and worsened violence, including against indigenous women and girls.  Despite the hardships, indigenous peoples have shown “tremendous” resilience by exercising their free will and applying their traditional knowledge to the problems at hand.

Stressing that indigenous peoples must not be left out of the design of vaccine campaigns, he said any effort must be based on their principle of free, prior and informed consent.  The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, together with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, serves as a road map out of the pandemic.  The Forum’s contributions to the high-level political forum on sustainable development, which will convene in July on the theme of a sustainable, resilient recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, will be “of huge importance”, he said.

ANNE NUORGAM, Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said the special theme of this session is “Peace, justice and strong institutions:  the role of indigenous peoples in implementing Sustainable Development Goal 16”.  The aim of Sustainable Development Goal 16 is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.  Work cut out for the Permanent Forum over the next two weeks is to engage indigenous peoples, Member States and United Nations entities in constructive dialogue to discuss what needs to be done to create more peaceful and just societies and how to guarantee access to justice for all.  The Permanent Forum can also chart a vision for effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions and propose concrete, actionable recommendations towards the realization of these goals.

The Declaration makes clear that indigenous peoples have both individual and collective rights, she said, adding that unfortunately, and far too often, indigenous peoples around the world continue to suffer serious violations of both individual human rights and collective rights as peoples.  Their lands continue to be taken for mining, logging, oil and gas exploration, industrial agriculture, and for carrying out largescale infrastructure projects.  They continue to be displaced from their ancestral territories, causing irreparable harm to livelihoods, cultures, languages and lives.  “Sometimes these assaults are committed by State forces — sometimes by private militias; often by a combination of the two,” she said.  As many of the current threats to peace and security relate to conflicts over natural resources, it is worth noting that indigenous peoples have successfully and sustainably managed their territories and resources for millennia.  Peace and security cannot be achieved without the full recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights.

In too many countries and communities, she decried, indigenous women and girls are subjected to violence and are murdered or go missing.  In North America, this is such a problem that there is now an acronym for it — MMIW [missing and murdered indigenous women].  “We see this in my home country of Sapmi as well as in Africa, Asia and Latin America,” she said, welcoming the establishment of a new Missing and Murdered Unit in the United States Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs tasked with investigating and solving these cases.  Violence against indigenous human rights and environmental defenders is another major concern.  At least 331 human rights defenders were killed in 2020, two thirds of whom were working on environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights, she said.  As the world begins to recover from the coronavirus, there is talk about building back better and addressing climate change and the severe inequalities that the pandemic has made clear for all to see.  “But if we are to build back better then we must go beyond lip service and genuinely ensure that no one is left behind,” she said.  “If we are to build back better, indigenous peoples must have a voice in all decisions that affect them.”  This means recognizing indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and their collective rights to lands, territories, resources and knowledge.  These rights must be respected, both at the country level and at the international level.

She expressed hope that the General Assembly President will soon appoint facilitators from Member States and indigenous peoples to move forward with a process aimed at enhancing the participation of indigenous peoples in the United Nations system.  “We indigenous peoples have time and again shown ourselves to be constructive partners with Member States,” she said.  “We enrich the work of the United Nations.  Let us build on this and find a way for the United Nations to finally recognize indigenous peoples’ representative institutions as the serious partners that they are.”

ELLIOTT HARRIS, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, Chief Economist, speaking on behalf of LIU ZHENMIN, Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, said the targets under Goal 16 cover some of the most important issues for indigenous peoples:  access to non-discriminatory justice; respect for free, prior and informed consent; and recognition of indigenous institutions and indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources.

“The impact of historical injustices, often without redress or reconciliation, is a major reason for the continued marginalization of indigenous peoples,” he acknowledged.

To promote implementation of the system-wide action plan on the rights of indigenous peoples, he said the Chief Executive Board adopted a Call to Action in November 2020, highlighting discrimination, land rights and reprisals against indigenous human rights defenders as particular areas for attention, underscoring the importance of indigenous people’s participation in decision-making, especially as related to the Sustainable Development Goals.

For its part, the United Nations will work to increase the participation of indigenous peoples in its processes, he said, strengthen international cooperation to bolster technical and financial assistance to support their rights and promote implementation of the action plan at the country level.  He drew attention to indigenous peoples’ “very limited” access to COVID-19 vaccinations and culturally appropriate health services delivered in indigenous languages, stressing that states of emergency during the pandemic are exacerbating their marginalization.  In only a few countries have indigenous peoples participated in policy responses.  “We are here to support your efforts,” he said.

DAVID CHOQUEHUANCA CÉSPEDES, Vice-President of Bolivia, addressing the Forum in a video recording, said indigenous peoples have never distanced themselves from the path of noble integration or the path of peace, respect for differences and for harmony.  “We have always moved forward by respecting water, ‘old man fire’, Mother Earth and the ‘sovereignty of our peoples’”, he said.  First Nations find value in participating in the Forum, drawing from their long journey of building a healthy, dignified life.

“Exclusion has made us strong as a rock,” he said, standing amid the collapse of civilization caused by relentless capitalism and religious dogmatism, whose dialectic excludes and is confrontational.  Instead, faithful to the cosmovision, indigenous peoples demand that States fulfil their obligations to respect their rights and those of Mother Earth.  He called for ending the destruction of rivers and oceans, and the killing of the defenders of Mother Earth cautioning against an anthropocentric view of planetary life.

PEKKA HAAVISTO, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, said in a pre-recorded video message that due to historical injustices, indigenous peoples are marginalized in many places in the world.  Redress and reconciliation have been overlooked.  Luckily, truth and reconciliation commissions have been put in place to investigate collective injustices in history.  The purpose of uncovering what has really happened is to prevent such injustices from occurring again.  In Finland, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is about to begin.  It is important to share best practices and learning from each other.  Applauding the work of indigenous human rights defenders who risk their lives to advance their rights, he expressed a deep concern about the increase in reprisals against them.  In today’s world, peaceful resolution of conflicts and access to justice and rule of law are more important than ever, and new ways to mediate and reconcile must be explored worldwide, he said.  Understanding each other is a prerequisite for sustainability and inclusion, and the Permanent Forum is the perfect arena for all to meet and take forward the goals of 2030 Agenda and the Declaration.

DEB HAALAND, Secretary of the Department of Interior of the United States, said in a pre-recorded video that she is a proud citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, speaking from the ancestral homelands of the Anacostan and Piscataway people.  With indigenous knowledge, the world can usher in a new era of peace, justice and strong institutions to meet this moment and move the planet towards a more sustainable future.  Under President Joe Biden, the United States has unleashed a whole-of-government approach:  to use nature-based solutions to conserve 30 per cent of its lands and waters by 2030 as part of an international push for conservation restoring balance to the lands, animals, plants, waters and all living things that sustain life; to closely coordinate with its indigenous communities in COVID-19 response efforts; and to partner globally ensuring indigenous peoples and all marginalized communities have access to vaccines, testing and treatment.  The approach also aims to put the full weight of the federal Government in a cross-departmental and interagency missing and murdered unit and continue to cooperate with Canada and Mexico and other Member States to combat violence against indigenous women and girls and to work with the international community on its repatriation efforts to realize a global commitment of honouring and caring for all indigenous peoples, their lands, languages, cultural heritage and sacred spaces.

Pledging Washington, D.C.’s support for the Declaration, she said President Biden’s Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation to Nation Relationships outlines the country’s commitment to respect tribal sovereignty and self-governance, fulfil federal trust and treaty responsibilities, and engage in regular, meaningful and robust consultation with Tribal Nations.  She said she will address indigenous issues at the first White House Council on Native American ZAffairs meeting of this Administration on 23 April.  “I am honoured to be the first Native American US Cabinet secretary, and fully understand my responsibility to future generations, and indigenous peoples everywhere,” she said.  “Though this difficult moment has been thrust upon us, it is an opportunity to usher in a new era of peace, justice and strong institutions.  But we will only rise to this moment by acknowledging the collective power of indigenous peoples, and by doing it together.”

Introduction of Reports and Interactive Dialogue

The Permanent Forum had before it two notes by the Secretariat, “International expert group meeting on the theme ‘Peace, justice and strong institutions:  the role of indigenous peoples in implementing Sustainable Development Goal 16’” (document E/C.19/2020/7) and “Study on indigenous peoples’ autonomies: experiences and perspectives” (document E/C.19/2020/5).

Introducing the former, Ms. Nuorgam said that the international expert group met in Chiang Mai, Thailand, from 19 to 21 November 2019 to discuss the theme “Peace, justice and strong institutions:  the role of indigenous peoples in implementing Sustainable Development Goal 16”.  She said that the expert group made several recommendations:  The United Nations should establish a regional inter-agency working group on indigenous issues in Asia, as has been done in Latin America and, most recently, in Africa.  The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) should cooperate with United Nations funds and programmes and undertake specific work on indigenous issues.  The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs should have a role in monitoring the implementation of peace accords involving indigenous peoples.

The expert group also recommended that Members of the Permanent Forum undertake outreach with interested Member States to explore the potential for the Security Council to address conflicts on indigenous lands and territories under the peace and security agenda.  Member States and the United Nations need to recognize and address land rights as central to most, if not all, conflicts.  In addition, Member States and the United Nations system should recognize the untapped potential in the role of indigenous peoples in peace processes as a means of development.  The expert group also considers it important for academia and other interested parties to further study the interrelationships between customary law and other, formal systems of law and identify good practices in intercultural dialogue.  More attention should be paid at the international level to how to build justice systems and the benefits of legal pluralism.  It would be useful to undertake comparative analysis of peace accords to identify what has worked and what has not and prepare a toolkit as guidance, she said.

Forum member Tove Søvndahl Gant (Denmark), introducing the study titled, “Indigenous peoples’ autonomies:  experiences and perspectives” (document E/C.19/2020/5), said Jens Dahl, the report’s author, is a renowned anthropologist and professor at the University of Copenhagen, and served on the Forum from 2017 to 2019.

Mr. Dahl said the study marks the last step in a process begun during an international expert group meeting in 2018, followed by a seminar in 2019 in Mexico City.  The study aims to bring attention to indigenous institutions that promote dialogue with Governments.  “This study is basically about options and possibilities for indigenous peoples to promote autonomy and self-government,” he said.  He distinguished between territorial and functional autonomy, noting that States sometimes determine a territory in which indigenous peoples are given specified rights.  This is often a preferred model of autonomy when indigenous peoples comprise a majority of a population living within a specified boundary.

When this is not the case, he said indigenous peoples may wish to develop a functional autonomy, of which there are two types:  ethnic and cultural.  This model gives rights to all indigenous groups, he said, citing the experience of indigenous peoples being allowed to establish their own schools.  In cities, they can sometimes claim the right to cultural autonomy and connection with their original homeland.  While limited, this model may give indigenous peoples a platform for further claims.  “Indigenous peoples are always a part of a nation State, but the level, degree and means of integration varies,” he said.

Most if not all autonomies may include three types of integration, he said, ranging from the most radical form — when an indigenous population chooses to live in voluntary isolation — to a model in which some parts of an indigenous community are strictly integrated into the national structure.  As for the factors that help determine a direction, he said the first question centres on how indigenous peoples organize themselves to promote their right to self-determination and establish national autonomies.  Some indigenous peoples may choose to retain the traditional decision-making structure.  A second factor is that indigenous peoples must seek recognition from the State, with questions around whether recognition should be in the constitution or through constructive agreements.  Approaching international human rights mechanisms are often the only road available.

He said that when indigenous peoples are in a minority position, experience shows that the territorial option is problematic.  Demography is a factor in determining the type of government.  For autonomy to last, the first step must be for indigenous peoples to agree, create legitimacy, have a clear vision and develop a draft for the type of autonomy they wish to see.  The most successful autonomies are those in which indigenous peoples and the State are responsible for the establishment of indigenous autonomies.  The study recommends that the Forum facilitate an inclusive process aimed at developing guiding principles for indigenous peoples’ rights to autonomy, focus on institutions that can be established to promote dialogue between indigenous peoples and Governments, and facilitate dialogue between the United Nations and indigenous peoples related to the right to autonomy.

In the ensuing dialogue, Grigory Evguenievich Lukiyantsev, Forum member from the Russian Federation, asked how Mr. Dahl analysed the recommendations in a report by Victoria Tauli Corpuz on strengthening intercultural dialogue between indigenous peoples and States, and whether he had requested any information from  States in conducting his report.  He also expressed surprise at the report’s descriptions of the models of autonomy, noting that in the Russian Federation, indigenous peoples were characterized as being “practically forced” into autonomous districts.

Simón Freddy Condo Riveros, Forum member from Bolivia, said that Andean countries such as his own, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia have engaged in regional meetings on local governance.  He asked whether the study explored how to structure local government within an indigenous territory, noting that indigenous peoples themselves should be the authors of any guidelines.  In Bolivia, for example, decisions on who will serve in Parliament are not made through elections, but rather through locally defined rules.

Aleksei Tsykarev, Forum member from the Russian Federation, drew attention to paragraph 3 from a report that emerged from a meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on the role of indigenous peoples in preserving forest biodiversity.  He asked whether Mr. Dahl’s study, if implemented, could cause damage to forests and whether traditional information can be protected by intellectual property legislation.  Indigenous peoples are always striving for dialogue, despite that they have been marginalized, he added.

Darío José Mejía Montalvo, Forum member from Colombia, highlighted the importance of the study as indigenous peoples contend with the pandemic.  “Indigenous peoples have been excluded from governance,” he said.  During the pandemic, there has been a rise in persecutions against indigenous communities for having exerted territorial control over forests.  Given the use of indigenous knowledge in various sectors, from fashion to textiles to natural resource extraction, he said the discussion on autonomy should take a critical step forward.

Mr. DAHL replied that his study aimed to identify the kind of autonomies available to indigenous peoples.  Indigenous peoples around world have used different ways to reach some kind of autonomy.  Often, they may focus on one way to create self-government, however, “there are different options”.

There are also different ways to foster dialogue, and States and indigenous peoples should agree on the format, he continued.  As for the definition of autonomy, he said he took “a loose approach” to the term, so that autonomy is not understood only as a territorial entity.  Functional autonomy has been used in combination with territorial autonomy, he added.

For information media. Not an official record.