Work remains to realize rights of indigenous peoples, says deputy UN chief

Date of publication: 
7 May 2012

Five years after the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted, a great deal remains to be done to realize the objectives contained in that landmark document, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said today.

“We continue to hear stories of struggles and exploitation of indigenous peoples around the world. It is time for those stories to change,” Ms. Migiro said at the opening of the 11th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, at UN Headquarters in New York. “Let us instead move towards the day when indigenous peoples are heard, listened to and empowered.”

Almost 2,000 indigenous participants from all regions of the world are taking part in the two-week session, engaging with members of the Forum, Member States and UN agencies on advancing the rights and well-being of indigenous peoples, who number some 370 million worldwide.

Issues to be discussed during the session include the rights of indigenous peoples to food and food sovereignty, the situation of indigenous peoples in places such as Central and Eastern Europe, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples slated for 2014, and the special theme of ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ – the way courts justified the annexing of indigenous lands – and the right to redress for past conquests.

“For 11 years, different voices and different languages have united in this Forum behind one, single demand: recognition and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples,” Ms. Migiro noted.

“Together, we have worked to define priorities and programmes for sustainable and culturally appropriate development. We agree that there can be no development for indigenous peoples without the involvement of indigenous peoples in every step, and only with their free, prior and informed consent,” she added.

While these are fundamental principles enshrined in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, one need not look far to find indigenous peoples facing discrimination, persecution, displacement – even extinction, the Deputy Secretary-General said.

“There are indigenous communities that lack clean drinking water, whose children go hungry, whose women suffer gross abuses and never see the perpetrators brought to justice,” she stated. “A great deal remains to be done to see the objectives of the UN Declaration become a reality.”

Adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007 after more than two decades of debate, the Declaration is a non-binding text that 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.

On 17 May, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will convene a high-level event to mark the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration, reflect on good practices and assess the document’s role in fulfilling the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.

Ms. Migiro also pointed out that the theme of this year’s session, the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ highlights the roots of many egregious violations of indigenous peoples’ collective and individual rights.

“We must acknowledge what has happened and recognize past abuses. We must remember in order to learn, understand and do better,” she said. “These are the foundations that will allow us to build a future based on mutual respect, equity and justice.”

Addressing a news conference on the margins of the session, the Chairperson of the Permanent Forum, Grand Chief Edward John, discussed the doctrine of discovery as he recalled his experiences at an Indian residential school in Canada.

“Those schools were premised on this idea that indigenous peoples were inferior to the general population; their cultures and civilizations were inferior; their languages were not to be spoken; children had to be taken from their families and communities and placed in these institutions to begin the gradual civilization and ‘Christianization’ of our peoples, as if our history and our culture and our languages were not important,” he said.

Established by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2000, the Forum is comprised of 16 independent experts who provide advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the UN system, raises awareness and promotes integration within the UN system, and disseminates information on indigenous issues.