*“Yet despite this recognition, indigenous cultures have been damaged more often than not by development policies that ignore their traditional sources of knowledge and cultural priorities and fail to respect their land rights,”* said the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) as its two-week session kicked off at the UN headquarters April 19 in New York.
The side events during the Forum include a special screening of the film Avatar and an exhibit in the UN headquarters lobby entitled *’Indigenous Peoples and Self-Determination’*.
Ban Ki-moon told some 2000 representatives of indigenous peoples, member states and civil society groups attending the Forum that *”the loss of irreplaceable cultural practices and means of artistic expression makes us all poorer, wherever our roots may lie”*.
The Forum was set up by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2000 to provide expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to UN agencies, raise awareness and promote the integration and coordination of relevant activities within the world body.
Headed by Vicky Tauli Corpuz from the Philippines, who shepherded a landmark Declaration of the UN General Assembly in 2007, the UNPFII comprises 16 independent experts appointed by ECOSOC, eight of whom are nominated by governments and eight by indigenous organizations in their regions.
Ban called on *”all governments, indigenous peoples, the UN system and all other partners to ensure that the vision behind the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples becomes a reality for all.”*
The Declaration outlines the rights of the indigenous people and outlaws discrimination against them. Though non-binding, the declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues.
*“Elsewhere, your cultures are being distorted, commodified, and used to generate profits which do not benefit indigenous people, and can even lead to harm,”* Ban said.
Indigenous peoples make up five per cent of the world’s population, but some 33 per cent of the world’s poor, according to State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, released in January 2010 and the first UN report of its kind.
The report pointed out that they are displaced by wars and environmental disasters. *”The weapon of rape and sexual humiliation is also turned against indigenous women for the ethnic cleansing and demoralization of indigenous communities; indigenous peoples are dispossessed of their ancestral lands and deprived of their resources for survival, both physical and cultural; they are even robbed of their very right to life.”*
On the other hand, the Report noted, of the some 7,000 languages being spoken today, more than 4,000 are spoken by indigenous peoples. Language specialists predict that up to 90 per cent of the world’s languages are likely to become extinct or threatened with extinction by the end of the century.
Taking all this into account, 143 UN member states adopted the Declaration. But the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – where sizable numbers of indigenous populations live – opposed.
Australia reversed its decision in 2009 following the change of government. But apparently a lot remains to be done. Despite recent advancements, an independent UN expert called on the country’s authorities March 9, 2010 to develop new social and economic initiatives and to reform existing ones to allow respect for cultural integrity and self-determination.
*“Having suffered a history of oppression and racial discrimination, including dispossession of lands and social and cultural upheaval, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples endure severe disadvantage compared with non-indigenous Australians,”* said James Anaya, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.
In his report issued following an official visit to Australia in August 2009, the Special Rapporteur said that the so-called Northern Territory Emergency Response – a Government plan rolled out in 2007 to address problems faced by Aborigines, particularly women and children – contains problematic features from a human rights standpoint.
The programme continued in 2008, while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered a national apology to indigenous peoples and called for a genuine partnership between the Government and indigenous communities to move towards a future *“based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.”*
In his report, Anaya recommended indigenous participation in the design, delivery, and monitoring of programmes, and promoting culturally-appropriate programmes that incorporate or build on indigenous people’s own initiatives.
“Governmental programmes must secure just social and economical well-being for indigenous peoples, while advancing their self-determination and strengthening their cultural bonds,” Anaya said.
On the opening day of the Forum in New York, New Zealand said it was dropping its opposition to the UN Declaration. Agencies reported that, in announcing on April 19 that New Zealand was reversing its position, Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples made clear the support was subject to his country’s law taking precedence.
National legal and constitutional frameworks, he said, *”define the bounds of New Zealand’s engagement with the aspirational elements of the declaration.”*
The UN Declaration potentially puts in question much of the land ownership in countries, such as those that opposed it, whose present population is largely descended from settlers who took over territory from previous inhabitants.
The U.S. UN Ambassador Susan Rice said April 20 Washington was reviewing its opposition to the Declaration, in a gesture to Native Americans who support the sweeping but non-binding document.
The Declaration says indigenous peoples *”have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise used and acquired.”* The U.S. officials said at the time — when the Bush administration was in office — that the text was unclear and that those who drafted it had failed to seek consensus.
But, addressing the Forum, Rice said she was *”pleased to announce that the United States has decided to review our position”* on the document.
*”We recognize that, for many around the world, this declaration provides a framework for addressing indigenous issues,”* she said, noting that Native American leaders had encouraged President Barack Obama to re-examine the U.S. stance.
*”There is no American history without Native American history,”* agencies reported Rice saying. *”America cannot be fully whole until its first inhabitants enjoy all the blessings of liberty, prosperity, and dignity. Let there be no doubt of our commitment. And we stand ready to be judged by the results.”*
Canadian authorities have repeatedly acknowledged plans to endorse the Declaration. The Canadian government said in a speech in March 2010 that it would take steps to endorse the UN declaration *“in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s constitution and laws”*. Indigenous groups have urged the government to embrace the human rights instrument without conditions or limitations.
Commenting the reviews, World Politics Review’s Juliette Terzieff writes: *”Of course, a UN declaration is non-binding and has no real legal status on which affected communities could launch judicial challenges. Many countries have signed on to the instrument with public caveats on how and to what extent they will adhere to guidelines”*.
*”But it does create a framework and an international standard. Also, such a broad consensus on a politically delicate issue bodes well for the future of joint action on other common concerns.”*