Senior United Nations officials joined representatives of the world’s indigenous communities and Member States today as the General Assembly marked the tenth anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and explored ways to further its implementation.
The day-long high-level event, coinciding with the ongoing sixteenth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, aimed to take stock of the achievements of the past decade, assess remaining challenges for the rights of indigenous peoples and consider further follow-up to the Declaration.
Durga Prasad Bhattarai (Nepal), General Assembly Vice-President, said that while global awareness of indigenous peoples and their rights had grown, progress had been inconsistent within countries and uneven around the world. To fulfil the commitments made under the Declaration, stronger partnerships — built on a foundation of trust — needed to be forged. He invited the international community to renew its commitment to indigenous peoples, work collaboratively to achieve the Declaration’s aims and secure a world in which the rights of all indigenous peoples were promoted and protected.
Evo Morales Ayma, President of Bolivia, delivering the keynote address, described how the indigenous movement in his country had brought together other sectors of society, including workers and the middle class. There were no issues in which indigenous peoples could not or should not be involved. For centuries, they had resisted invaders who sought to extinguish their identity, he said, emphasizing that indigenous people around the world shared the same history.
Describing war as the direct product of capitalism, he said there was no crisis for the rich, who continued to accumulate wealth on the backs of the poor. Humanity was in danger, but that was a challenge, not a destiny. Indigenous peoples had shown that they could and must resist, and that they could make their own future. What had been achieved in Bolivia showed what could be done at a global level, he said, calling indigenous peoples the moral compass of humanity. Their fight was anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist, and their responsibility was to organize a global fight to save humanity and the world, he added.
Kyung-wha Kang, the Secretary-General’s Senior Adviser on Policy, said that to ameliorate progress, several tools should be used, including the three United Nations mechanisms — the Permanent Forum, the Special Rapporteur and the Expert Mechanism. In addition, the United Nations system-wide action plan and ongoing consultations could also be used to help to amplify indigenous voices in the Organization’s processes.
Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said that, despite many obstacles, the indigenous movement was making the Declaration a reality. The Standing Rock water protectors in the United States and activists from Nepal to Mexico were insisting that their informed consent be sought. Yet, extractive industries continued to destroy their land, seeing the indigenous population, not as a vital element, but as an obstacle.
Furthermore, the private sector must be aware of the Declaration’s principles, he stressed, adding that such information should be part of business schools’ curricula. To foster progress at the country level, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was working towards building national action plans.
Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, the Permanent Forum Chair, said the Declaration reflected a global consensus, with some countries such as Canada taking leadership positions after having initially voted against its adoption. The principles of free, prior and informed consent were a critical factor in the Declaration. However, while implementation progress continued, the situation on the ground was grim, with indigenous peoples living shorter lives and having limited political participation. More than 200 front-line defenders, half of whom had been defending land, had been killed in 2016. Those and other situations must be addressed and remedied.
The United Nations system had taken steps to include representatives of indigenous peoples, she said, highlighting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which provided an important platform to improve the situation of indigenous peoples on the ground. Integrating indigenous peoples in development programmes could further progress. Still, Member States must fully implement the Declaration. The Permanent Forum was committed to working Governments and indigenous peoples to address the remaining challenges.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said her first report had pointed to two challenges to implementing the Declaration: a lack of awareness and understanding about the human rights instruments, and States’ difficulties translating them into practical steps. On promoting awareness and understanding, the results of her predecessor’s work had seen the reversal of position by four countries — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States — which had originally voted against the Declaration.
Yet, there was a special need for more awareness and effective application within the United Nations system itself, she said, pointing to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) programmes as an example of good practices. While the Declaration had been a tool for the empowerment of indigenous peoples, rollbacks of rights to freely organize and strengthen capacities, along with a lack of political will to heed recommendations remained serious impediments to its full application. The most fitting way to mark the Declaration’s anniversary was to honestly identify and confront obstacles to its implementation.
Albert Barume, Chair and Rapporteur of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, also pointed to a lack of adopted national action plans that would require changes in laws, policies, programmes, development paradigms, public perceptions and social settings. Many still argued against the Declaration’s added value and relevance in domestic settings, he said, noting that the Expert Mechanism’s latest study on the right to health had shown a link between indigenous youth issues and the historical trauma that had affected their parents or grandparents. Stereotypes must end and particular attention was also needed for specific groups within indigenous communities, including youth, women and persons with disabilities.
In the ensuing plenary segment, speakers representing indigenous peoples from seven sociocultural regions took the floor, in tandem with Government ministers, senior officials and representatives of Member States.
Agnes Leina, from Kenya, nominated by the African region, noted efforts taken by several Governments on the continent to implement the Declaration. In Kenya, for instance, the Declaration had informed that country’s inclusive development framework. She outlined regional steps that could be taken, such as the creation of an African Union team to monitor implementation and the adoption by the African Development Bank of safeguards based on the Declaration. There was, however, need for special protections in conflict regions, as well as women’s participation in peacebuilding.
Joan Carling, from the Philippines, representing the Asia region, said that, out of the world’s estimated 350 million indigenous people, two thirds lived in Asia. A majority of them were poor and marginalized. Although there had been positive developments in several countries since the Declaration’s adoption, such advancement had been overshadowed by serious setbacks and human rights violations. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, indigenous peoples — regarded as an ethnic group — faced assimilation through resettlement in towns. In Japan, the Government was denying the Okinawans’ rights as indigenous people and building military bases on their land. In Nepal, a new Constitution failed to incorporate the collective rights of indigenous peoples.
Most human rights violations related to land issues, she continued. Land grabs for the benefit of agribusiness, energy and tourism, among other sectors, were occurring in almost all countries, including those that recognized indigenous land rights. With indigenous peoples having little access to justice, States in the region must implement the Declaration with clear policy cohesion and concerted action, and with the full participation of indigenous peoples. Without proper implementation, social justice and sustainable development would not be achieved for indigenous peoples, and their exclusion, marginalization and discrimination would persist.
Luis Macas, from Ecuador, nominated by the Central and South America and the Caribbean region, said today’s meeting represented a triumph for indigenous peoples. The Declaration was not a concession granted to them, but the product of a fight they had undertaken in their communities, their territories and in international forums. A high level of commitment would be required to ensure that responsibilities did not take the form of empty rhetoric in States and territories.
Among other priorities, he cited territorial rights, without which indigenous peoples would be extinguished. For indigenous peoples, the concept of territory comprised the environment as a whole and for thousands of years, indigenous peoples had cared for territory and defended it. Yet, paradoxically they had been criminalized, persecuted and imprisoned for doing so, making them strangers and aliens in their own lands. He urged Member States to show much more understanding about the vision of indigenous peoples and called for an agenda to be established that would discuss whether to follow the capitalist system or a community system.
Okalik Eegeesiak, from Canada, representing the Arctic Region pointed out that no major progress could be reported with the exception of the gains made in Canada. She urged the region’s respective Governments to take swift action and to take Canada’s example in their efforts to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. The 2014 World Conference outcome document had focused on those rights and Member States must effectively dialogue with indigenous peoples to promote and advance their rights, including through effectively implementing the Declaration at the national level.
Nina Versalova, from the Russian Federation, representing Central and Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia region, emphasized the pooled efforts of indigenous peoples and Member States. In the Russian Federation, she said, indigenous peoples not only enjoyed all the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens, but also additional collective and individual rights. Together with the Government and civic organizations, they were fine-tuning mechanisms to improve their lives. With their own representative in Parliament, indigenous peoples also had the opportunity to influence decisions that affected them, she said.
Despite the steps being taken, problems remained, with globalization presenting challenges, she said. “We must pool our efforts,” she stressed, emphasizing that only indigenous peoples themselves could determine their development path. Underscoring the importance of maintaining indigenous lifestyles, she spoke of the need to observe traditions and support the role of youth. While they might live on different continents, indigenous peoples were one. Land, traditions and customs united them, and through strength, they would act together.
Oren Lyons, from the United States, nominated by the North America region, pointed out that, with ice melting in the north, “we squander time”. The tenure of humans on Earth totally depended on the resources of Mother Earth, especially water and the territorial integrity of Mother Earth subjected everyone to laws that were absolute. The human species had come to a point where its survival was in question. However, peace was possible and it was within the mandate of the great halls of the United Nations to achieve that.
It was disconcerting, though, that on the tenth anniversary of the Declaration, proposed procedures for indigenous peoples’ participation in meetings with United Nations bodies appeared to violate the Declaration’s provisions, he said, including the right to self-determination, prior consent and consultation. Probably the most important thing would be to move from a declaration to a convention on the rights of indigenous peoples. “Let’s get on with it,” he said. “Peace is in this room. It is up to you.”
Ghanzali Ohorella, from Indonesia, representing the Pacific region, emphasized the sacrifices of those who had brought the Declaration into being. Their efforts could be honoured by continuing their work. While United Nations bodies relied on interpretations of the Declaration in the course of their work, problems remained, including an increasing lack of political will and knowledge of the Declaration. Many indigenous peoples in the Pacific were on the front line of climate change and had been subject to injustice, poverty, high suicide rates and deteriorating health.
States and indigenous peoples needed to move from rhetoric to actions, he said, criticizing the use of domestic law to circumvent international human rights obligations. Today was an opportunity to summon and reaffirm the positive energy contained in the Declaration, to carry on work together, overcome challenges and to achieve a better future. More than a minimum standard, the Declaration was a map to achieve the dreams of ancestors. At times it would be difficult to breathe life into the Declaration, but in time, hope, dignity and justice would prevail.
Member States delegates also renewed their commitment to the Declaration and detailed national actions that put the text into action. While acknowledging the many challenges that lied ahead, several put the rights of their respective indigenous peoples in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Nuvia Mayorga, Minister for the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Mexico, speaking for the 18-nation Group of Friends of Indigenous Peoples, recalled that the Declaration had been agreed upon only after almost 25 years of deliberation by Member States and indigenous peoples. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was of vital importance to indigenous peoples, and Member States should establish mechanisms to enable those communities’ full participation on issues that might affect them.
The United Nations must also play a central role by renewing the commitment of its system and Member States to remedy historic injustices, he said, adding that “indigenous peoples have their own perspectives and priorities as peoples and it is time we listen”. Emphasizing that diversity was a source of strength, he said the Declaration should be celebrated as a source in favour of human rights, sustainable development and peace.
Asko Välimaa (Finland), underscoring his country’s commitment to ensuring the constitutional right of the Sámi people to maintain and develop their language and culture, acknowledged that Finland, like other nations, faced challenges in achieving the Declaration’s goals. He added that, in preparing for its chairmanship of the Arctic Council this year, Finland was taking into account the unique role of indigenous peoples in Arctic cooperation.
Stafanie Amadeo (United States) said her country had made great strides within the structure of its Constitution and laws since 2010 when it lent its support to the Declaration. However, much further work remained to be done to overcome serious challenges that affected American Indians and Alaska Natives disproportionately. The United States had pledged to abolish barriers to holistic prosperity for indigenous peoples and individuals, and called on the world community not to rest until health, safe and prosperous indigenous communities had been achieved everywhere, she stated.
Teodoro Locsin (Philippines), emphasising that his country sought avidly to rediscover and preserve its native roots, said its national development plan for 2017-2022 included an aggressive awareness of indigenous peoples’ rights, the primacy of their own justice systems and their political empowerment. “The power to shape their lives in accordance with their customs was put back in their hands,” he said, adding that an ethnography programme launched this year would include a census of indigenous populations and housing both inside and outside ancestral domains.
Ricardo Monteiro (Brazil) drew attention to his country’s commitment to indigenous peoples’ land rights. Education for indigenous peoples in their own language was a priority for the Government, he said, noting also a fast-growing number of indigenous university students. Emphasizing that his country was one of the few that had ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989, also known as International Labour Organization Convention 169, he said the Declaration struck a fair balance between the rights of indigenous peoples and international principles.
Also speaking today were representatives of Canada, Guatemala, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia, South Africa, Ukraine, Sweden, Mexico, Russian Federation, Nicaragua, Australia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru, Estonia, New Zealand, Cuba, Hungary, Denmark, Honduras, Argentina, China, Nepal and Japan, as well as the European Union.
A representative of the International Labour Organization also spoke.