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Indigenous Peoples

The status of the world’s native peoples: what was said at the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues

1,000 speakers met at the Forum on Indigenous Issues to discuss native people’s condition ten years after the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Over 1,000 indigenous peoples’ representatives from the North Pole to New Zealand reflected on the progress and challenges in safeguarding indigenous rights during the 16th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held at the international organisation’s headquarters in New York between the 24th of April and 5th of May. Calling for concrete action, participants raised serious concerns over the upholding of international commitments. In fact, despite numerous changes brought by the adoption of the landmark UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ten years ago, native inhabitants – who make up 5 per cent of the global population yet account for 15 per cent of world’s poor – are still among the most marginalised and discriminated groups worldwide. 

Indigenous peoples continue to suffer disproportionately from poverty, discrimination and poor healthcare. Their collective and individual rights are too often denied. This is unacceptable. We can do better. We must do better,” Lenni Montiel, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, said in an opening statement.

We need change 

For this reason, some representatives insisted on undertaking legally binding measures that would reinforce both state’s accountability to comply with international norms and indigenous empowerment in shaping the political arena. As recalled by Les Malezer from Australia, it is emblematic that fewer than 30 states have ratified 1989 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, the only international document explicitly concerning indigenous rights with binding legal power. This demonstrates governments’ reluctance to move beyond “paper promises”. Likewise Durga Prasad Bhattarai, speaking on behalf of the President of the General Assembly Peter Thomson, addressed the ongoing talks to overcome limited space for indigenous voices within UN structures

The violation of the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is among the most commonly cited injustices suffered by indigenous peoples. In relation to this several members of the Forum mentioned the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “We have never consulted and never gave our consent to the Dakota Access Pipeline to come through the non-ceded territory of the Fort Laramie Treaty,” Brenda White Bull, lineal descendant of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull and Standing Rock Sioux Nation citizen, highlighted.

Image over debate 

The Forum was also an occasion for Member States to boast national policies favouring indigenous peoples, at times sacrificing accuracy and transparency in the name of preserving a favourable international image. For example, preoccupied more about the post-civil war perception of his still-fragile country, Luis Ernesto, Deputy Minister for the Interior of Colombia, assured “the highest standards of compliance with the Declaration with regard to dialogue and land ownership”. He didn’t however confront the discussion on the discrepancy between progressive domestic legislation and its slow enforcement – a challenge that many countries are currently struggling with.

Similarly, Nicaragua portrayed the situation of indigenous land in the country in a positive light, stopping from addressing numerous violations of human rights on indigenous land most recently brought to public attention through the provisional measures granted to Miskito peoples by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the ruling concerning the murder of the husband of María Luisa Acosta, lawyer and vocal indigenous rights advocate. 

Forum on Indigenous Issues
On the 1st of May, during the second week of the Forum, Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations gathered in the main Conference Room to address their statements to the members of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues © Charles Gay

Progress nevertheless

Since the adoption of the Declaration there have nonetheless been various tangible achievements contributing to the safeguard of indigenous peoples. For instance in 2009 Greenland, an ex-colony of Denmark, transited into becoming a self-governing territory of the Scandinavian nation. Ecuador on its part claims to have achieved 100 per cent school enrolment among indigenous children. Also, many communities seek empowerment through the establishment of independent media outlets, according to the organisation Cultural Survival. This year, the Forum itself organised the Indigenous Media Zone for the first time to enable direct communication between the United Nations and indigenous peoples worldwide. 

Read more: The 11 most important indigenous victories of the last 2 years

Despite efforts to enhance indigenous rights and uphold international accords one idea stood out throughout the session – that there is an urgent need to do more and to do better. Alarming testimonies of indigenous representatives about threats to and assaults on o indigenous rights defenders, about harassment and killings over indigenous territories, about exclusion of indigenous youth and women from society can’t simply be compensated with vague promises, but require immediate reaction and cooperation among indigenous peoples, governments and international bodies in order to stop the cycle of violence and discrimination.

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