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United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: 10 Years of a Powerful Message
By Valerie Taliman
May 16, 2011
When indigenous leaders first visited the United Nations offices in Geneva, Switzerland in 1977, they were seeking justice and a fair forum for the many treaty and human-rights violations being committed against Native peoples by the governments that had colonized their homelands.
It was a time when Indian country was throbbing with activism and a time when civil and human rights were at the forefront of the national conversation following demonstrations at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee and the ongoing protests over the Vietnam War.
Even though they were able to push their issues onto the front pages of newspapers around the world, many Native activists and leaders eventually realized that they would never get justice in the courts and political systems, and came to believe that the system was stacked against them. The many losses for Indian nations in the United States Supreme Court were a resounding message that Native land and water-rights claims would never be fairly decided there. It was clear to these leaders that they needed to go beyond the courts of Canada and the United States for intervention and sanctions—and for justice.
A group of leaders from many parts of North, Central and South America decided to go to the United Nations to seek standing and to get an official voice. “It was the vision of my elders, who were fighting for our treaty rights,” recalls Chief Wilton Littlechild, a Cree lawyer and one of the original members of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). “They realized that all the laws were written by our colonizers, all the judges were appointed by their governments, and that we would never get justice under their rules. So we went to the United Nations seeking an independent forum where our concerns would be treated fairly.” This was a radical idea, but not a new one. Levi General, the hereditary chief of the Cayuga (commonly known by his title, Deskaheh), traveled to Geneva in 1923 to implore the League of Nations to honor the treaties between the Iroquois and Europeans. He had the support of some nations, but the strong opposition of the British, which doomed his appeal.
Littlechild was part of the first indigenous delegation to the United Nations in 1977, and since then has attended and chaired more than 100 international meetings in 27 countries as a delegate and legal counsel for the Four Nations of the Maskwachis Cree. He was the first treaty Indian ever elected to the Canadian Parliament, serving in the House of Commons from 1988 to 1993. That experience helped prepare him for the many negotiations with nation-states in which he engaged as one of the early leaders crafting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, that was finally adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2007, but not then endorsed by the United States and Canada.
Alongside the 30-year drafting process of that declaration, work continued to create a “permanent forum” for indigenous issues. That process took 24 years, but the UNFPII was finally formally established in 2001. The UNPFII is a 16-member advisory body to the Economic and Social Council—directly under the General Assembly—with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.
The UNPFII, which convenes annually, comprises 16 independent experts who serve three-year terms and may be reelected or reappointed for one additional term. Eight of the members are nominated by countries, and eight are nominated directly by indigenous organizations. The two indigenous-nominated representatives from North America currently serving on the UNPFII are Dalee Sambo Dorough (Inuit, Alaska), an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and Chief Edward John, the hereditary chief of Tl’azt’en Nation in northern British Columbia. (A complete list of the current members is available online by searching for “UNPFII members.”)
As one of the early proponents of both the UNPFII and the creation of the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004), Littlechild served on the UNFPII for six years. He remembers its humble beginnings in 2001, when it had no office space, no funds and no staff—but indigenous people finally had an official voice, and he intended to use it. “It truly was a historic day for all indigenous peoples, and we first thanked all those warriors who moved on to the spirit world before they could see their dreams come true. It was another step of our long journey seeking recognition as peoples, tribes and nations.”
At the time, Litttlechild asked his elders how to say “United Nations” in their language. Mamao Atoskeyw Kamik (“where peoples work together”) was the term they agreed on, which was much like the theme selected for the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples “Partnerships in Action.”
On the 10th anniversary of the creation of the UNPFII, Littlechild looked back proudly on the 24-year effort to establish a powerful voice for Native peoples that would be heard by all world leaders. “We were finally able to take our rightful place in the family of nations, be recognized for our valuable contributions to humankind, and be involved in the international arena as full participants with self-determination and Treaty Rights,” he said.
“My goal has always been to see our treaties honored and respected,” said Littlechild. “To do that, we have to focus our efforts on positive action within the U.N. forum. To rebuild our indigenous nations, recapture our spiritual strength and lift each other up, we have to coordinate our work effectively with our partners—especially now that we are at the stage of implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
This year’s UNPFII is scheduled for May 16 to 27 at U.N. headquarters in New York City, with hundreds of delegates from around the world scheduled to attend. The agenda includes discussions on economic development, environment and indigenous peoples’ rights to “free, prior and informed consent” over development and decisions affecting their lands. Another major focus is the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—strategies for its implementation are being developed and considered.
Professor James Anaya, the special rapporteur on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, will hold individual meetings with representatives of indigenous peoples and organizations from May 18 to 20.
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UN launches first global partnership to advance rights of indigenous peoples
The first global UN inter-agency initiative to promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples was launched today on the occasion of the 10th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The initiative, called the United Nations-Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership (UNIPP), is a commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and calls for its full realization through the mobilization of financial cooperation and technical assistance.
Press release | May 20, 2011
NEW YORK – 20 May 2011 – The first global UN inter-agency initiative to promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples was launched today on the occasion of the 10th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
The initiative, called the United Nations-Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership (UNIPP), is a commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and calls for its full realization through the mobilization of financial cooperation and technical assistance.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the initiative and urged all countries “to support this new initiative so that it can fulfill 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” he said, “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.”
The aim of the UNIPP is to secure the rights of indigenous peoples, strengthen their institutions and ability to fully participate in governance and policy processes at the local and national levels, including conflict prevention in regard to ancestral land and use of natural resources. Many indigenous communities are witness to exploitation of these lands and resources by extractive industries – in many cases without regard to their rights.
The Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum, Mirna Cunninghan, said the partnership was “an important step in the efforts of indigenous peoples everywhere to fully realize their human rights. 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.”
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention (No. 169) adopted in 1989, are widely recognized as the key international instruments for promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.
There are more than 370 million indigenous peoples in some 90 countries accounting for 15 percent of the world’s poor and one-third of the 900 million people living in extreme poverty. Indigenous people also tend to experience low levels of education, increased health problems, higher crime rates and human rights abuses.
Globally, indigenous children are less likely than other children to be in school and more likely to drop out of school. Indigenous girls are at even greater risk of being excluded from school. Furthermore, indigenous children often face a lifetime of discrimination and exclusion, deepening their disadvantages and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
The newly launched 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.
UNIPP brings together the experience and expertise of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Over generations, indigenous peoples have developed highly specialized knowledge, livelihood strategies, occupations and cultures, which are closely linked to lands, territories and natural resources. In the context of today’s crisis, indigenous knowledge is critical to the search for new solutions, which link human development, human rights, peace and environmental sustainability.
Indigenous peoples are in a unique position to contribute to addressing the most pressing environmental and social challenges of our time. Their partnership is an essential requirement, and something which UNIPP seeks to promote.
International Labour Organization (ILO
Tel: +1 646 707-2956
UNDP New York
Tel: + 1 212 906 6127,
UNICEF New York
Tel: + 1 212 326-7684
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)