18 May 2006

Role of Governments in Advancing Indigenous Rights Focus, as Debate Continues in United Nations Forum

NEW YORK, 17 May (UN Headquarters) -- As it continued its series of dialogues with the main stakeholders this morning, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues focused on the role of Governments in the advancement of indigenous peoples' rights, agreeing that the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals required a true partnership, at all levels.

The Forum is an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council, with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights.  This year, it is considering indigenous peoples' key developmental concerns through the special theme "Millennium Development Goals and indigenous peoples: redefining the Goals".

With the Programme of Action of the Second Decade of the World's Indigenous People launched during the Forum's current session, several speakers insisted that the Decade should bring tangible results from concerted efforts of all players, including Governments, the international community and civil society.  The Decade -- whose end coincides with the benchmark for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015 -- seeks to further strengthen global cooperation for the attainment of indigenous peoples' goals, by means of action-oriented programmes and specific projects, increased technical assistance and relevant standard-setting activities.

Several speakers expressed hope that the anticipated adoption of the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people -- one of the objectives of the First Decade -- this year would serve as a blueprint for establishing genuine partnerships for the promotion of their rights.

However, the representative of New Zealand, who also spoke on behalf of Australia and the United States, said that any attempt to put that draft forward for endorsement in the United Nations would be disingenuous and irresponsible.  It lacked consensus and, thus, any moves to adopt it by the Human Rights Council would establish a dangerous precedent.  Endorsement of that text, which many States could never live up to, would be a gross disservice to indigenous people.  To become a tangible and ongoing standard of achievement, the declaration must be universally accepted, observed and upheld, in order to have political and moral force.

Among the provisions that did not enjoy consensus, he listed the parts of the text articulating self-determination for indigenous peoples, which, in his opinion, were inconsistent with international human rights law.  Indeed, some of the provisions of the Chair's "final compromise text" attempted to reinterpret the Covenants, and could be misinterpreted as conferring a unilateral right of self-determination, and possible secession, upon a specific subset of the national populace, thus threatening political unity, territorial integrity and indeed the security of existing Member States.  The draft also appeared to confer, upon a minority, a power of veto over the laws of democratic legislatures.

That statement elicited a strong reaction from several Forum's members, who insisted on the need to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples at the international level, and said that the failure to adopt the draft would represent a serious setback.  One expert said that the world's indigenous peoples should have representation at territorial levels.  They must be able to exercise their fundamental right to self-determination.  The draft -- under consideration for almost three decades -- had been shaped by those who understood the importance of land, territories and resources to indigenous people.  Now was the time to leave political views behind and move forward and adopt the text.

"Let us be frank with each other," another member of the Forum said.  "We all know that colonization was the mother of all theft of indigenous land and resources."  Everyone knew that the slave trade and the perpetuation of the institution of slavery had ingrained, in certain societies, a sense of separatism and segregation.  That being the case, he could not understand why the Governments of New Zealand, Australia and the United States took issue with the notion of creating different classes of citizenship.  What had they been doing for the past 300-400 years?  Land and resources stolen from the indigenous peoples must be returned to their rightful owners.

Another expert said that the end of the first International Decade without the adoption of the draft amounted to a "dangerous gap" in international law, as well as the rights-based work of the United Nations.  He stressed that indigenous communities hoped the text could be adopted during the inaugural session of the Human Rights Council.  The thrust of the text rejected subjugation and the denial of long-standing rites, cultures, traditions and resources.  It aimed to give dignity to the world's indigenous people at the international level.  Governments must support efforts to adopt the draft, as soon as possible.

"Why should violators of the indigenous peoples' land rights hold up the adoption of the declaration on indigenous rights?" an Elder from the Western Shoshone nation asked, as she informed the Forum about a law suit filed by her people against the United States Government, claiming ownership to 60 million acres of land, rich in gold deposits.  Those Governments must be held accountable, no matter how much money they had.

A member of the Forum also said that, while indigenous people were not mentioned expressly in the Millennium Declaration, when the international community spoke about alleviating the dire conditions of "the poorest of the poor", no one could deny that, sadly, the world's indigenous populations were to be found among that group.  It was necessary for the plight of indigenous people to be expressly acknowledged in the global development agenda, and to ensure that policies were worked out to promote and protect their cultures and rights.

Participants in the debate highlighted national action plans and strategies to implement the Second Decade's Programme of Action, and shared their domestic experience, which included projects and political initiatives to address poverty, inequality, disease and exclusion among their countries' indigenous communities.

Guyana's representative, speaking on behalf of the Rio Group, highlighted the need to establish new ways of ensuring that indigenous people articulated their needs within the current framework of the Millennium Development Goals, in order to benefit more form national efforts to attain those Goals.  The report of the Expert Group Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals, Indigenous Participation and Good Governance supported research to analyze the impact of the Millennium Development Goals programme on indigenous people, including research into the impact of international, regional and bilateral trade; financial arrangements for official development assistance (ODA); and the debt burden of indigenous peoples.  The Rio Group supported that research, since it believed that the Permanent Forum should not merely highlight the shortcomings of Governments, but actively engage and collaborate with them, in resolving those issues.  Indeed, the Forum could be used as a platform to advocate debt relief, favourable terms of international trade and ODA, and would serve to better position Governments to invest in much needed social services, especially to indigenous peoples.

Stressing that the Millennium Development Goals could not be rewritten, but that Governments could influence the ways in which they were implemented, Canada's representative said that his Government's approaches to indigenous issues had been predicated on the principle that indigenous peoples should be included in decision- and policy-making that affect them.  To that end, last November, Canada's Prime Minister, territorial leaders, leaders of the Assembly of First Nations, as well as the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, among others, had met in an historic First Ministers Meeting, in Kelowna, British Colombia.  At that meeting, agreement had been reached among the federal, provincial and territorial levels of Government, and Canada's aboriginal leadership, to renew efforts to close the gap between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.  It was also agreed that targets and indicators would be used to measure progress.

Among other issues addressed today was the need to urgently compile comprehensive data on indigenous peoples, in order to develop and implement effective policies and goals.  In that connection, Denmark's representative cited an international comparative study on the living conditions of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic region, which had been initiated by Greenland, as a cooperative effort between indigenous peoples and States, under the auspices of the Arctic Council -- an intergovernmental forum consisting of eight Arctic States and six indigenous organizations.

Also participating in the discussion with the Forum's 16 independent experts were representatives of Dominica, Norway, Viet Nam, Fiji, Australia, Thailand, Brazil, Bolivia and Spain.

The Forum will continue its work at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 18 May.

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