30 July 2001


NEW YORK, 27 July – The historic first annual session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will take place at United Nations Headquarters in New York from 6 to 17 May 2002. Adopted by the Economic and Social Council on the last day of its substantive session, the resolution specifically leaves room for future sessions to be convened at a different location. It also sets out a timetable for completing the organizational details necessary before the Forum can actually meet.

The Economic and Social Council’s establishment of the Permanent Forum is unprecedented in the international community and is the culmination of a process initiated in 1993, when the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights proposed it. Its establishment then became one of the central objectives of the programme of activities for the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004). When it meets in May 2002, the Forum will break new ground. For the first time, indigenous people will participate directly in their own capacity, in the work of an official United Nations body. Indigenous peoples have been seeking representation on the international level since they first approached the League of Nations in the last century.

The Forum, which is to be a subsidiary organ of the Economic and Social Council, will consist of 16 members. Eight members will be nominated by governments and elected by the Council. The other eight, whose nominations will come through broad consultations with indigenous organizations and groups, will be appointed by the Council President after he consults with both the Council Bureau and the Regional Groups. All the members will serve in their personal capacity as independent experts on indigenous issues for a period of three years, with the possibility of re-election or reappointment for one additional term.

Yesterday’s resolution also sets out a scheme of rotation for the government-nominated seats. One seat will go to each of the five Regional Groups. The three left over will be rotated among the five Groups. For the first term, those seats will be assigned to the Regional Groups of Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, and Western Europe and Others. They will rotate over a period of five terms, or 15 years. Also according to yesterday’s resolution, the first elections and appointments to the Forum should be held not later than 15 December 2001.

As established last year, the Permanent Forum is to serve as an advisory body to the Council with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. It is to provide expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the Council and, through the Council, to programmes, funds and agencies of the United Nations. It will raise awareness of and promote coordination of activities relating to indigenous issues within the United Nations system, and prepare and disseminate information on indigenous issues.

The financing of the Forum is to come from within existing resources through the regular budget of the United Nations and through voluntary contributions. The functioning of the Forum, including the method for the selection of its members, is to be evaluated five years after its establishment. States, United Nations bodies and organs, intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations in consultative status with the Council are welcome to participate as observers.

Historically, indigenous peoples have struggled to make their concerns heard by governments, the United Nations and other intergovernmental bodies. Their circumstances and needs largely went unnoticed by the international community until a landmark study was undertaken by the United Nations Subcommission on the Protection of Minorities and Prevention of Discrimination in the 1970s. The Subcommission –- now renamed the Subcommission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights -– appointed Special Rapporteur José Martínez Cobo of Ecuador to investigate the problem of discrimination against the world’s indigenous populations. His monumental work proved to be a watershed and led directly to the establishment of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which met for the first time on 9 August 1982.

Throughout all of its work, the Working Group has consistently reported that indigenous peoples continue to be among the most marginalized and impoverished, and that their ways of life, cultural heritage and languages continue to be threatened. At the same time, the various world conferences of recent years have repeatedly validated the contribution of indigenous societies, particularly regarding sustainable development and the protection of the planet’s biodiversity.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who has been designated coordinator for the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, welcomed last year’s decision as a historic step forward. "The Permanent Forum", she said, "promises to give indigenous peoples a unique voice within the United Nations system, commensurate with the unique problems which many indigenous people still face, but also with the unique contribution they make to the human rights dialogue, at the local, national and international levels."

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