11 August 2003


NEW YORK, 8 August (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the message from Jan Kavan (Czech Republic), President of the fifty-seventh session of the General Assembly, on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, observed 9 August:

This year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is special, in that it is dedicated to children living in indigenous cultures.  Children hold the keys to the future of traditional knowledge and wisdom.  Their welfare and nurturing is important in ensuring that they will one day be able to turn over their cultures to their own children.

The world has over 370 million indigenous people living in 70 countries.  The majority of the 6,000 known languages and cultures belong to indigenous tribes in all areas of the world.  Indigenous peoples contribute the rare and precious colours and patterns to the tapestry of the human species.  They show the rest of the world that a peaceful co-existence with the environment and other communities is possible.  They also understand the workings of ecological balances, thus contributing to the sum total of human knowledge and experience.

It has been a long and tiresome struggle for indigenous peoples around the world to gain recognition for the survival of their respective cultures in an ever-changing world.  As early as 1924, at a meeting of the League of Nations, Chief Deskaheh of the Council of Six Nations of the Iroquois (United States) pleaded, with the Council, for the rights of his people.  However, it was not until the Martinez Cabo study from 1981 to 1984 that the case for indigenous peoples gained any significant momentum in the international arena.

As we all know, the formative years of a child are crucial to his or her development.  The children and youth of indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable, as their communities have been isolated, marginalized, and excluded from the main stream of national life.  They have to overcome language and cultural barriers in order to be accepted into mainstream society.  Only then are they able to gain access to education and health care, or play a part in the economic and political life of their countries.

The United Nations System, (the International Labour Organization, United Nations Children's Fund, United Nations Development Programme) together with civil society advocacy groups, has worked ceaselessly to further the welfare and visibility of indigenous peoples and their youth.  Last year, the United Nations established a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council. This Forum is dedicated to promoting the formal recognition and rights of indigenous peoples, which are enshrined both implicitly and explicitly in the various universal declarations and conventions on human rights.

I urge Member States to honour the diversity of their respective populations, and to provide specific support for vulnerable indigenous communities.  We should pay homage to all those who have supported the cause of indigenous peoples. Their efforts have given this issue a place in the international global agenda.  Let us pledge to work together for their integration into the mainstream of our national programmes.

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