DEVELOPMENT: UN Holds Out Fresh Hope for Indigenous Peoples

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By Jaya Ramachandran

In a landmark step towards lifting more than 370 million indigenous peoples in some 90 countries accounting for 15 per cent of the world's poor out of extreme poverty, four United Nations entities have launched a new initiative.

The initiative, to be known as the UN Indigenous Peoples' Partnership (UNIPP), will promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples, aspiring to strengthen their institutions and ability to fully participate in governance and policy processes at the local and national levels.

The importance of the initiative launched May 20, 2011 on the sidelines of the 10th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) -- May 16 to 27 -- at UN Headquarters in New York, lies in the fact that around the world indigenous children are less likely than other children to be in school and more likely to drop out. Indigenous girls are at even greater risk of being excluded from school.

"UNIPP will help address these problems and other social, economic and political issues by working with governments and indigenous peoples' organization through various means including training, promotion of dialogue, the establishment of consultative processes, legislative review and reform, as well as conflict prevention," notes the UN in a media release.

The Partnership draws experience and expertise from the UN International Labour Organization (ILO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in an effort to implement the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Declaration, adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007, affirms in Article 6 that "every indigenous individual has the right to a nationality."

Article 7 says: "1. Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person. 2. Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group."

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the initiative and urged all countries to support it "so that it can fulfil its potential to turn the declaration's principles into reality." He noted that "indigenous people suffered centuries of oppression, and continue to lose their lands, their languages and their resources at an alarming rate."

"Despite these obstacles, indigenous people make an enormous contribution to our world, including through their spiritual relationship with the Earth. By helping indigenous peoples regain their rights, we will also protect our shared environment for the benefit of all," Ban added.

UNIPP will serve as a welcome tool for the UN agencies, which intend to prevent conflict with regard to ancestral land and use of natural resources. Many indigenous communities have witnessed the exploitation of those lands and resources by extractive industries -- in many cases without regard to their rights.


Explaining the present situation, UNPFII member Dalee Sambo Dorough says the nation Member States of the United Nations have the responsibility to uphold the human rights principles outlined in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They have "the initial obligation to begin to adopt policies and legislation… to maintain consistence with the human rights standards that are embraced in the declaration."

She said at a press conference on May 18 that the direct and often brutal violations of the basic rights of indigenous people in every region of the world continue, even in areas where success had been achieved, such as in Canada where an agreement over land use between the aboriginal communities in Nunavut has faced implementation hitches.

"The reality of the UN declaration is that the rights of indigenous people did not arise out of the goodwill of States," said Dorough. "Rather, it is because of the entire history of exploitation, colonization, as well as the full range of human rights violations that the indigenous community has pressed the UN to open its doors in order to for us to take our rightful place not only in the context of the human rights pillar of the UN, but also in the environment, as well as the peace and security pillar," she told reporters.

The UNPFII chairperson Mirna Cunningham said the UNIPP was "an important step in the efforts of indigenous peoples everywhere to fully realize their human rights," adding: "We look forward to our continued work with the UN so that the voiceless will be heard and that we can bring about dignity and respect for the diversity of our cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations."

UNPFII member Raja Devashish Roy said that $1.5 million in start-up funds for 2011 and 2012, supplied by the Government of Denmark, would enable UNIPP to work at the country level to promote dialogue and build partnerships.

"This (partnership) will work on the ground," he said at a press conference to launch UNIPP. "It will take projects and programmes and develop the capacity of Governments and indigenous peoples’ organizations. It will build partnerships at the country level with indigenous peoples in the driver’s seat." The Partnership would expand on the global endeavours now carried out by the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, he added.

Carsten Staur, Permanent Representative of Denmark at the UN, called the Partnership "an innovative global alliance with great potential to advance the rights of indigenous peoples". It would provide significant outreach efforts in all corners of the world by acting as a platform for the spread of knowledge about indigenous groups throughout the United Nations system, he said.

Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said the Partnership would enable the United Nations system to "act as one" in easing the delivery of services to indigenous peoples and providing financial support.

Cleo Doumbia-Henry, ILO Director for International Labour Standards, said the agency had a long history of working with indigenous peoples, citing ILO Convention No. 169, which was complemented by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. "It was right and fitting that a Partnership tries to take the two instruments together," she said. "This is a unique opportunity to work together. It is just the beginning."

Convention No.169 is an international instrument ratified by about 20 countries since its adoption in 1989 and dealing specifically with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. A ratifying country has one year to align its legislation, policies and programmes with the Convention before it becomes legally binding.

Abdel-Rahman Ghandour, UNDP Deputy Director/Acting Director of Communications, said UNIPP would help implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and address the recommendations issued by the Permanent Forum over the last few years. The UNDP Group was bringing its experience in coordinating United Nations programmes at the country level, he added.

Asked why the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was not part of the Partnership, Ghandour said UNDP had extensive experience in the environmental field. However, UNIPP actively invited other United Nations agencies and programmes to join. "The more alliances we have from the rest of the UN family, the stronger we will be."

Replying to the question whether the Partnership would help indigenous peoples' efforts to protect the intellectual property linked to their natural resources, ILO's Doumbia-Henry said it would bring together the expertise of all United Nations agencies on that issue, adding that the main challenge would be helping to build indigenous capacity to create the necessary legal instruments and institutions to protect those rights.

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