23 April 2021

Experts in Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Call for Greater Participation of Indigenous Peoples Sustainable Development Decisions

Climate change — and the megaprojects aimed at attenuating its effects — are presenting life-threatening challenges to traditional ways of life, experts told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today, as participants explored ways to better include indigenous people in the sustainable development decisions affecting their survival, especially at the United Nations.

“It would also be critical for indigenous peoples to build and strengthen partnerships with United Nations agencies in advancing the [Sustainable Development Goals] based on indigenous peoples’ perspectives, needs and aspirations,” said Joan Carling of the Tebtebba Foundation, co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development.

Citing the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report, she said that not a single Goal is on track to be attained, with regression seen in the form of rising inequalities, worsening climate change, biodiversity loss and increasing amounts of waste from human activity.

“This worrisome scenario also reflects the realities of indigenous peoples across the globe, who are not only being left behind but also pushed behind further,” she warned.  Further, unsustainable economic growth, advanced through partnerships with business and investors, is being prioritized in the name of “national development”.

She said Sustainable Development Goal 13 on combating climate change presents another challenge, as renewable energy projects — including windmills, geothermal plants and large dams — are being developed on indigenous territories without the consent of indigenous peoples.  In addition, the energy generated by these projects is being used in urban settings rather than the host communities.

COVID-19 is also causing major setbacks in advancing the Goals, she said.  For indigenous peoples, this has amplified existing inequality and discrimination.

Along similar lines, Janene Yazzie of the International Indigenous Treaty Council, and co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group, urged the Forum to advise the Economic and Social Council on the importance of ensuring that indigenous peoples participate in the Council’s high-level political forum.  A seat should be reserved for them at all high-level formal and informal meetings, she added, along with translation services.

She denounced efforts to criminalize indigenous land rights and the advocates defending them, stressing that indigenous peoples cannot be meaningfully included in efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development if they face State-sanctioned violence and criminalization when exercising their right to protect their lands, territories, resources and peoples.  She pressed the Forum to advise the Council on how to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Myrna Cunningham, President of the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, said indigenous peoples in the region are committed to promoting dialogue with the private sector in carrying out energy projects so that their rights are not violated.  She recommended that resources be transferred to indigenous communities so that they can fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals.

In the ensuing discussion, representatives of Governments and indigenous organizations exchanged views on best practices and barriers to implementing the 2030 Agenda.

The representative of Sweden, speaking for the Nordic countries, said the prosperity of the Inuit and Sami peoples, along with respect for the principle of self-determination are priorities for these Governments.  New discussions with the Sami parliaments are being initiated towards signing the Nordic Sami Convention, which will lay the ground for assuring that the Sami people have a regional framework for harmonized development in Sweden, Norway and Finland, she said.

A speaker from the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus said a main stumbling block for the inclusion of indigenous peoples in the Goals is the lack of their legal recognition as indigenous peoples with collective rights, as affirmed by United Nations international human rights instruments.  While Asia accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s indigenous populations, the majority are not legally recognized, and their lands and resources are expropriated and exploited by States and corporations.

The representative of Mexico, speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of Indigenous Peoples, said the 2030 Agenda and the Declaration are the main instruments for building back better from the COVID-19 crisis.  The voluntary national review process is an opportunity to take stock of the progress and challenges in achieving the Goals, he said, calling on countries to consider including indigenous peoples in that review process.

A speaker from the Indigenous Peoples Organisation, Australia urged the Forum to request that countries annually report on their efforts to implement the Goals, including indigenous-led outcomes.  Goal 13 on climate change cannot succeed without the unique knowledge of the land, waters, skies and resources held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  Indigenous peoples must be afforded agency and leadership in climate change decision-making.

Also today, the Permanent Forum heard the introduction of a study on “Representative institutions and models of self-governance of indigenous peoples in Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia: ways of enhanced participation” (document E/C.19/2021/8).

Presenting its findings, co-author Aleksei Tsykarev, Forum member from the Russian Federation, said it describes possible forms and bodies for self-organization and decision-making in that sociocultural region, including opportunities for indigenous peoples’ participation in the work of the United Nations.  Given that the Declaration represents a “minimum standard”, all States in the region are bound to recognize indigenous peoples and their institutions of self-government.

The study found that there is a great variety of traditional and modern forms of self-organization of indigenous peoples, he reported, allowing them to exercise their rights to determine their development, participate in decision-making and build constructive relationships with States.

The study also found that the principles of self-organization of indigenous peoples in the region largely coincide with the approaches taken in other sociocultural regions.  Importantly, the study revealed that the legitimacy of these self-governing bodies derives from their inherent cultural and human rights — rather than from their recognition by external players.

The authors agreed that the lack of legislation on indigenous peoples’ organizations does not prevent them from constructively interacting with authorities, he added, citing the example of convening congresses of indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation.

He recommended that States and international organizations encourage indigenous peoples to develop their systems of self-organization.  He cautioned against restricting their participation in processes ongoing at the national and international levels, including for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.

In the ensuing discussion on the study, Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine and Daria Egereva, members of the Temporary Committee for the Indigenous Coordinating Body for Enhanced Participation in the United Nations, presented their views.

Ms. Aboubakrine noted that in 2017 the General Assembly adopted a resolution, titled “Enhancing the participation of indigenous peoples’ representatives and institutions in meetings of relevant United Nations bodies on issues affecting them.”  This decision stems from a process that began in 2014, with a commitment made by Member States during the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to consider the participation of indigenous peoples at the United Nations.

However, it is a mistake to think that the quest for enhanced participation began in 2014, she stressed, explaining that it dates back to the 1920s.  Advocating for their rights to self-determination, she pressed States to consider allowing their participation in the General Assembly as permanent observers.

Ms. Egereva recalled that the Temporary Committee held its first informal meeting in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2016, with broad participation by indigenous peoples from all seven sociocultural regions.  The second meeting — held in Quito, Ecuador in January 2020 — aimed to provide indigenous peoples’ representatives and experts with the opportunity to consolidate their positions and strategies on the current and future processes.  Given the urgency of this work, a temporary coordinating body was established to lobby Member States for the inclusion of indigenous peoples in United Nations deliberations.

She endorsed the candidacy of Claire Charters, a Maori from New Zealand, and Estebancio Castro-Diaz, an indigenous person from Panama, to serve as Indigenous Advisers to the President of the General Assembly, adding that the Temporary Committee also nominated Mr. Castro-Diaz as co-chair of the Human Rights Council informal round table.

For their part, she urged Member States to request a meeting with the Secretary-General and Assembly President to outline their views on the appropriate processes for the Assembly to consider indigenous peoples’ enhanced participation in the United Nations.

Several representatives of Government and indigenous organizations expressed their positions.  Canada’s representative — also speaking for Australia, Bolivia, Colombia, Denmark, Greenland, Estonia, Finland, Guatemala, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Peru and the United States — welcomed the decision outlined in a recent Assembly resolution to continue the consideration of possible measures to enhance the participation of indigenous peoples’ representatives and institutions in relevant United Nations meetings on issues affecting them.

Including indigenous peoples in the work of the United Nations will strengthen the international community’s ability to build an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future, he said, declaring:  “Our countries remain steadfast in our commitment to move this discussion forward and welcome the Permanent Forum’s advice on reconciling the right to self-determination with the intergovernmental nature of the United Nations.”

A speaker from the Sami Parliament in Finland asked the Forum to encourage Member States to include indigenous peoples in their delegations when discussing their enhanced participation at the United Nations.

The representative of the Philippines said the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples is responsible for the design of policies, programmes, activities and projects for the well-being of indigenous peoples in his country.  In addition, an inclusive agriculture development programme is in place to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and integration in the value-chains of organized indigenous farmers and fisher folks.

A speaker from the Assembly of First Nations recommended that the Forum undertake a study highlighting examples of legislation and national action plans, including the work accomplished in Canada.

Sven-Erik Soosaar and Grigory Lukiyantsev, Forum members from Estonia and the Russian Federation, respectively, delivered concluding remarks as co-authors of the report.

Mr. Soosaar said the Russian Federation provides special indigenous status and benefits only to peoples numbering less than 50,000 persons, insisting that all indigenous peoples in that country need similar protection.  Noting that an Udmurt language rights activist set himself on fire in protest against Moscow’s language policy, he said the case demonstrates that there are deep problems under the surface.

Mr. Lukiyantsev said the outcome document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is no doubt fundamental, but it is not the only legal framework.  Decisions by the Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and the Human Rights Council also constitute such a framework.  To be legitimate, a new solution to the enhanced participation of indigenous peoples must be the result of consensus for their participation.  It is also important to focus on the existing modalities for indigenous peoples to participate in those United Nations organs.  The study is not perfect, he said, acknowledging that more dialogue is needed on certain issues.

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 27 April, to continue its work.

For information media. Not an official record.