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Speakers in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today pressed United Nations bodies across the system to expand resources and opportunities for indigenous representatives so that they may participate in the Organization’s work, with many calling out practices that prevent their voices from being heard and advocating for a greater focus by the Forum on breaking down barriers.

Among those shining a spotlight on such behaviour was the forceful speaker from the International Indian Treaty Council, who denounced attempts in United Nations bodies to diminish the unique legal standing of indigenous peoples by conflating them with “local communities”, an undefined entity. 

She pointed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, and positions taken at the Convention on Biodiversity, which have been used to justify combining local communities with indigenous peoples as a single entity with comparable rights.  In fact, the name of this platform was decided at the twenty-first Conference of the Parties in Paris without the input of indigenous peoples.  “Local communities are not a defined or recognized constituency at the UNFCCC,” she emphasized.

Recalling that indigenous representatives submitted a statement to the UNFCCC Chair describing such attempts a “false equivalency”, she said an October 2020 policy paper by the Innuit Circumpolar Council further articulated how this practice erodes and diminishes indigenous peoples’ distinct rights.  “This impacts us in United Nations bodies and in our homelands, where we are struggling to have our distinct rights respected,” she stressed, citing one South American country’s attempts to designate gold miners as “local communities” with rights to encroach on traditional lands. 

Indigenous peoples have been a distinct constituency at the United Nations since 1977, she continued.  “We cannot accept any attempts to diminish the outcomes of this historic trajectory or undermine their status and standing by combining or equating them with non-indigenous entities, such as minorities, vulnerable groups or local communities,” she said.  These attempts — whether by States or United Nations bodies — will be challenged by indigenous peoples and those mandated to defend their rights.  She requested the Forum to endorse this position and recommend that United Nations environment and chemical conventions do likewise.

Bolstering that view, the speaker from the Innuit Circumpolar Council similarly urged the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — whose Chair briefed the Forum a day earlier (see Press Release HR/5469) — to consider several topics of importance, including as expert working group meeting themes.  She pointed to indigenous rights to water, mental health, self-determination — and the impact of that right on youth and children — as well as the intersection of climate change and food security. 

These issues are relevant across the United Nations “in every matter of concern to indigenous peoples”, she continued.  The Council’s October 2020 policy paper describes the human rights framework the Innuit helped to crystalize in favour of all indigenous peoples.  “The undermining of the rights of Innuit and other indigenous peoples by States and other intergovernmental organizations is unacceptable,” she stressed.

The speaker from International 20 Council said her organization would welcome the opportunity to follow up on the Expert Mechanism’s three treaty seminars, last held in 2012, as well as on progress being made in the long-requested registry to house treaties within the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).  She asked about the role of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in upholding the rights it affirms, and of the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples in influencing that agency, the Convention on Biological Diversity and other United Nations entities on these matters.

Throughout the day, speakers tackled a host of emerging issues — many related to conflict and violence — with the representative of the Crimean Tatar Youth Center alerting the Forum that indigenous peoples in Crimea are being illegally incorporated into the Russian army.  “Tatars from Crimea are being sent to fight against their own people in their own country,” she insisted.  She urged the Expert Mechanism to include her recommendations in its report and to launch a study on indigenous peoples’ rights in times of conflict.

The speaker from the Tairona Federation meanwhile described attacks on the territorial integrity and culture of her people by the Government of Colombia.  The Sierra Nevada is the ancestral home of the Santa Marta people, who have faced interference in their own self-government, through the de-legitimization of the Governor’s traditional authority.  This violates their rights to autonomy, self-determination and self-government, as recognized by several international human rights treaties.

In Cameroon, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, said the speaker from the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordination Committee, indigenous peoples are targeted by armed groups.  She called on States to care for the victims and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice “with the strongest sentences”. 

The speaker from the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Chad similarly described conditions of the Mbororo people living in hard-to-reach areas stretching from the Savannah to tropical forests.  She pointed to the lack of recognition of traditional knowledge and lack of medical staff living in the area where indigenous peoples live.  Governments should create mobile health centres, organize health awareness campaigns, assign qualified professionals and guarantee the recognition and value attached to traditional knowledge.

The speaker from the Nia Tero Union of Javari Peoples, spotlighting indigenous peoples living in isolation in Brazil, said that the Government’s National Indian Foundation is acting against those peoples, including a military coordinator who, in 2021, shot at them.  The Government has also attempted to intimidate and criminalize his organization and allies, while companies degrade their rivers and miners commit sexual abuse.  “Our people have been overcome by retrograde forces who want to dispel us from our lands,” he stressed, adding that there is now a draft law that will take away their rights.  The policy of protection of isolated indigenous people — once a world reference — is now being “colonized by evangelists” and supported by a network of public agents.

On the environmental front, the speaker from the Global Indigenous Youth Conclave said the United States military has contaminated drinking water in Oahu, where 14 of 20 fuel tanks on Red Hill are leaking.  The Forum must call on United Nations agencies to urge all militaries to guarantee indigenous peoples’ rights to clean water, support the de-militarization of Hawaii and Pearl Harbor and extend these calls worldwide to any military base that has not stewarded the environment.  She also recommended re-inscribing Hawaii on the list of United Nations Non-Self-Governing Territories. 

“The most complete and appropriate response to physical and cultural genocide […] is to return our languages to their rightful places within sacred spaces of our indigenous homes,” said Chief Willie Littlechild, who drew attention to the Tahlequah Declaration, created in January 2022 as part of the International Decade on Indigenous Languages.

Several Government representatives offered their perspectives — notably on the participation of indigenous peoples in United Nations work — with Mexico’s delegate urging the Forum to provide inputs to the third interactive dialogue with the President of the General Assembly on possible measures to increase their involvement. 

Canada’s delegate similarly encouraged the Forum ensure there is sufficient time to hear from indigenous representatives during its sessions and that the indigenous speakers list is prioritized. 

Australia’s representative suggested that the Expert Mechanism report on the link between human rights and international development cooperation, and that the Forum explore how States can better interact with indigenous peoples in multilateral negotiations, which would provide a more complete picture of international cooperation as a whole.

Other delegates described national conditions.  Viet Nam’s representative said all ethnicities are equal and discrimination is prohibited under the Constitution.  Every ethnic group has the right to use its own spoken and written language to promote their identity, traditions and culture.

The representative of Brazil, while acknowledging challenges in relation to indigenous peoples, said his country is one of the 23 that has ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169.  Land traditionally occupied by indigenous peoples — more than 12 per cent of the national territory — has been delimited and regularized.  The National Indian Foundation under the Ministry of Justice and Public Security is responsible for protecting these lands.  His country’s Congress is considering draft law 191/2020, which seeks to regulate the use of minerals and other resources on indigenous lands.

India’s representative took issue with the concept of indigenous peoples, which does not apply to his country, as it relates to situations in which people suffer from historic injustices related to the dispossession of lands and territories, among others.  This concept cannot be expanded to create artificial divides in societies where diverse ethnic groups have lived together for years.

Still others took a regional perspective.  Guyana’s representative, speaking for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said the one-size-fits-all approach to development does not allow for equitable benefit sharing.  Indigenous peoples’ views must be considered in national, regional and international policymaking.

Sweden’s representative, speaking also for Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway, said respect for the Innuit and Sámi people’s right to self-determination is a priority of the five Governments.  Laws on consultations are now in force, stipulating legal obligations for Governments to consult the Sámi people on matters that concern them.  “Learning from history is a moral obligation,” he said, stressing that abuses perpetrated by Nordic countries shall never be repeated.  Truth commissions have been established, preparing the ground for long-term reconciliation.  The Governments are also working to finalize a Nordic Sámi convention to secure harmonized development of Sámi rights in these countries.

The Forum also tackled questions under its six mandated areas — economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights.

Irma Pineda Santiago, Forum member from Mexico, introduced the study on “collective intellectual property and the appropriation of the ideas and creations of indigenous peoples” (document E/C.19/2022/8), underscoring that the intellectual property rights system excludes the rights of indigenous peoples.  She recounted constant attacks by pharmaceutical, oil and fashion companies that appropriate textile designs and rely on indigenous peoples’ knowledge of nature.

“They’re stealing our technologies,” she said, pointing to Isabel Marant, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Zara and Marks & Spencer, among others.  They have been formally denounced and indigenous peoples are awaiting a resolution.  Most Latin American and Caribbean countries lack an internal legal framework to protect their rights, although Panama, Brazil and Mexico have made advances in their domestic legislation.  The market is unable to manage the situation appropriately.  She recommended that States recognize indigenous peoples’ full control over their intellectual property, including their traditional knowledge.

Simón Freddy Condo Riveros, Forum member from Bolivia, added that the costs involved in taking a case to traditional courts makes these tribunals inaccessible to indigenous peoples.  He urged the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to focus on this issue, emphasizing that “we are not simply talking about merchandise”.

Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, introduced her report on violence against indigenous women and girls, which she will present to the Human Rights Council in June.  She explained that indigenous women and girls are subjected to “a complex web” of structural forms of violence by State and non-State actors.  They often face a continuum of violence that spans generations, severely impacting their rights to security, dignity, health and a life free from torture.  Further, non-recognition of land rights can facilitate gender-based violence against them.  Such abuse is drastically under-reported.  Perpetrators regularly enjoy impunity, as data is scarce and not systematically collected. 

Geoffrey Roth, Forum member from the United States, announced the creation of the Coalition on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems, following the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit.  Indigenous representatives participated for over a year in more than 30 consultations in the seven sociocultural regions, collaborating with United Nations agencies.  With support from Mexico, Canada, Dominican Republic, Finland, Norway, New Zealand and Spain, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Permanent Forum, the Coalition aims to ensure protection for indigenous food systems and the scaling up of traditional knowledge.  “This will be led by indigenous peoples as a space for collective work,” he said, calling for input from indigenous peoples in the coming weeks.

The speaker from the National Movement of Weavers, addressing issues of intellectual property rights, said the fabrics and clothes produced by indigenous peoples are “an intellectual expression of our identity, culture and history”.  Racism has led to the stripping of their identity.  “Our lives have been turned into merchandise, something that can be stolen,” she explained.  Since 2007, the National Movement of Mayan Weavers of Guatemala has documented the exploitation of Mayan clothing, with companies claiming they are the intellectual property right holders.  Designs are being printed on fabric, which is unfair competition for weavers.  Guatemala’s Constitutional Court called on Congress to enact a law to protect the collective intellectual property of indigenous peoples; it has not been implemented.  She urged the Forum to call on Guatemala to respect the ruling, approve the relevant laws, and draft a United Nations legally binding declaration for collective intellectual property belonging to indigenous peoples.

An official from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) took note of the study on collective intellectual property, stressing that indigenous peoples have the right to control, protect and develop their intellectual property over cultural heritage and other expressions.  

To her comments that indigenous peoples can form alliances with companies to ensure they are part of the patent, Mr. Riveros, Forum member from Bolivia, replied:  “That patent belongs to the strongest party; let’s remember what we are dealing with is the right to collective knowledge, practices, designs and textiles.”

Speakers from the following organizations also made interventions:  Indigenous Peoples Rights International; Namunkura Associacao Xavante-Nax; Arramat Project, Sámi Parliament of Finland; Tribal Link Foundation; Asian Caucus of Indigenous Peoples; Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean; Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia; Tebtebba; Semilla Warunkwa; Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations; Indigenous World Association; Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact; Indigenous Assembly from Yucatan; Kampuchea Krom; National Indian Health Board; Global Caucus of Indigenous Youth; Innuit Circumpolar Council-Sámi Council; National Organization of Indigenous Women of the Andes and Peru; and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights International.

Also speaking were representatives of Denmark (also for Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), Ecuador, Guatemala, Ukraine, Canada, Russian Federation, Iran, Chile, China, Guyana, Honduras, Namibia, Denmark (on behalf of the LGBTI Core Group), Bangladesh, Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela.

Forum members from Ecuador, Australia, Burundi and Nepal spoke, as did Sheryl Lightfoot, North American Member of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Officials from the secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also made interventions.

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Friday, 29 April, to continue its twenty-first session.

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