Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Text Of UN Press Briefing And Remarks On World Day Of Indigenous People, August 8, 2003

While the plight of the world's indigenous people had slowly gained increasing international attention, greater efforts were needed to learn more about them, protect their lands and sacred places and to safeguard their human rights and fundamental freedoms, speakers stated this morning at a Headquarters press briefing.

Moderating the briefing, held on the occasion of the International Day of the World's Indigenous People, was Elsa Stamatopoulou, Acting Chief of the Secretariat for the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Joining her were Gert Rosenthal, Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the United Nations and President of the Economic and Social Council; Guy Lopez, the Coordinator of the Sacred Place Protection Program, Association of American Indian Affairs; and Craig Mokhiber, Deputy to the Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

At the United Nations, noted Mr. Rosenthal, the presence of indigenous issues and peoples had grown considerably in the past five years, moving from the area of human rights to a broader framework involving environmental, developmental, cultural and political considerations. That had led to the creation of Permanent Forum in 2000, which offered the United Nations a window to indigenous communities.

[The Forum, made up of 16 experts -- eight nominated by indigenous peoples and eight by governments -- meets annually in New York to discuss and raise awareness of indigenous issues, as well as provide advice and recommendations to the United Nations system.]

At last month's substantive session in Geneva, the ECOSOC held an extraordinary discussion with the Forum and adopted virtually all of the recommendations adopted at the Forum's second meeting. It was necessary to learn more about indigenous peoples and issues, he added. In that regard, the Forum had suggested to ECOSOC that indigenous issues be the topic for the Council's high-level segment at some point, possibly in 2006.

Noting that the First International Decade of the World's Indigenous People would finish in December 2004, he said that there was growing consensus that there should be a second decade. He hoped the General Assembly would act on that proposal, so there would be no gap between the first and second decades.

Speaking in his national capacity, Mr. Rosenthal noted that over half of Guatemala's population considered itself indigenous. Indigenous communities constituted the most vulnerable population in his country, in terms of health, education and income. There were large disparities between those that regarded themselves as indigenous and those that regarded themselves as non-indigenous, especially women. There was still a considerable amount of discrimination in societies with large indigenous populations.

While a lot had been accomplished by the international community in terms of the understanding of indigenous issues, stated Mr. Lopez, much more would be required regarding the protection of sacred lands and places. What was occurring now was the outcome of centuries of discrimination and disregard of the religious freedoms and indigenous rights of American Indians and other indigenous peoples. As a result, the places they regarded as sacred were not accorded the same protection and rights given to places held sacred by the world's major religions.

What was required was a way to remedy the historical bias and bring a balance, so that indigenous peoples had recourse when their sacred places were threatened by development that they considered inappropriate. In the United States alone, there was deep conflict over the protection of several dozen such places, and several hundred places were threatened or already destroyed. He called for the appointment of a special rapporteur to investigate and report on the issue. Also, more of those places should be designated as world heritage sites. In addition, he hoped that various American States, including New Mexico and California, would enact State laws to protect the sacred lands of indigenous peoples.

Mr. Mokhiber elaborated on the specific challenges to indigenous peoples brought by various conceptions of "development". The issue, as old as colonization itself, had been brought to the forefront by several recent developments, particularly a comprehensive study of the question over the past year by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, Rodolfo Stavenhagen. Sometimes human rights violations came packaged or disguised as good acts, he noted, recalling the example of blankets poisoned with diseases and distributed in indigenous communities in the past and used as a weapon against them.

The Special Rapporteur had documented that there was a modern equivalent of the "poisoned blanket" that the international community must focus on, namely the impact of large-scale development projects on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous communities. His investigation led to the conclusion that the impact of such activities had been devastating, including loss of indigenous territories and land, forced evictions, large-scale migration and resettlement, depletion of natural resources, environmental degradation, and harassment and physical violence against those in the indigenous communities opposed to such activities.

Mr. Stavenhagen had warned, he said, that the international community was in a kind of "final frontier of centuries of encroachment", that was now threatening the very existence of some groups. He spoke about "impending cultural genocide", the actual extinction of some groups, particularly in the Amazon.

The threat was largely coming from what was "clumsily defined as economic development" on the lands and communities of indigenous peoples, Mr. Mokhiber said. What was seen was a pattern of forced development, the kind which was defined in a narrow sense and did not match the definition adhered to by most indigenous communities. In many cases, the problem did not stem from the lack of laws. In fact, there was a fairly large set of international norms and standards, which he hoped would be supplemented by a draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples over the course of the next year.

The problem, he said, was the lack of enforcement and implementation. In addition, the indigenous communities affected were seldom consulted or included in the decision-making process. Even when they were consulted or included in decision-making, their interests were almost invariably trumped by other interests.

He gave an example from the study of an indigenous community in a country in the Americas, which had lived on a riverside area for centuries. Their ancestral territory was legally protected and recognized as an indigenous reserve. For several years, they had been negotiating with the Government over concerns they had related to a government-approved project, which would allow a private company to build several large dams on the river on which they made their living and flood a significant portion of their traditional lands.

The indigenous community, made up of about 500 families, since the project started had endured continuous pressure and persecution because of their opposition to the project. They've seen very little success in their efforts to stop the project, to the extent that a few years ago some of their land was expropriated and declared a public utility. The Government then licensed the private company to begin work on the project without any prior consultation with the indigenous community. The project diverted the river, flooded portions of the land, and prevented indigenous navigation and fishing.

Predictably, the indigenous people protested, he said. The result, which was documented by the Special Rapporteur, included an alarming number of forced evictions, destruction of property, assassination of several indigenous leaders, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention and continuous threats on those remaining there. "This is not the most extreme case", he stated. It was a "disturbingly typical case" of what happened when decision-making was done without taking a human rights-based approach. He called for renewed efforts to recognize progress, but to expedite it to ensure that a human rights-based approach to development was applied in all cases.


As UN marks Day of indigenous peoples, Annan renews call to ensure their rights

8 August - As the United Nations celebrated today the International Day of the World's Indigenous People, Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that indigenous peoples still faced threats to their lives and destruction of their "belief systems, cultures, languages and ways of life."

Underscoring these threats, the UN refugee agency reported that virtually all of the 84 indigenous groups in Colombia face forced displacement or are threatened by it because of internal strife, while the UN Development Programme (UNDP) issued a new survey showing that Chile's Mapuche people, the country's largest indigenous group, suffer many social and economic disparities.

"The human family is a tapestry of enormous beauty and diversity. The indigenous peoples of the world are a rich and integral part of that tapestry," Mr. Annan said in his message for the Day, usually marked on 9 August but observed today. "They have much to be proud of and much to teach the other members of the human family. The protection and promotion of their rights and cultures is of fundamental importance to all States and all peoples."

Noting that the establishment of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has given indigenous peoples a home at the UN, he added: "As a mechanism for partnership between indigenous peoples, the Member States and the United Nations system, the Permanent Forum gives hope that the motto of the Decade - 'partnership in action' - is being turned into reality in the areas of economic and social development, environment, health, education, culture and human rights."

Celebrating "the existence, diversity and achievements" of indigenous peoples, the Secretary-General declared: "We honour their struggles to preserve their cultures, protect their lands and combat discrimination. We pay tribute to those who, without relinquishing their identity, move comfortably between the traditions of their ancestors and the wider, rapidly changing modern world."

The Chairman of the Permanent Forum, Ole Henrik Magga, noted the abuses indigenous people still faced and made a vibrant appeal for preserving their culture and languages.

"We deplore and condemn the egregious violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings and involuntary disappearances, the discrimination in the criminal justice system, the forced displacement, the extreme poverty, the danger of extinction of isolated indigenous communities, the continuing threat to indigenous cultures and indigenous lands that indigenous peoples still suffer," he said in a message. "But now that indigenous peoples have a place within the family of nations we look forward to a real and constructive partnership with States and intergovernmental organizations. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is a vehicle that will allow us to gain a higher profile and come closer to the end of exclusion and discrimination and have our human rights respected."

On Colombia, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said a new report by the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) painted "a grim picture." It shows that nearly 13,000 indigenous people fled their original homelands in 2001 and 2002. During the first half of this year, over 50 indigenous persons had been murdered and as many as 3,000 had to flee their homes in fear for their lives.

On the inferior conditions of Chile's 600,000 Mapuche people, who account for about 4 per cent of the population, UNDP reported that their human development index (HDI), based on income, life expectancy and education levels, is 0.642, compared with 0.736 for other Chileans.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003