Breaking new ground UN forum on indigenous issues holds inaugural meeting

In a historic first, nearly 1,000 representatives of indigenous people from around the world gathered today at United Nations headquarters to attend the opening of a new UN body devoted to indigenous issues. Speaking at the outset of the initial two-week session, which will review UN activities related to indigenous peoples and set the future work of the new body, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette called the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues “a milestone in the struggle of thousands of indigenous peoples to win recognition of their rights and identities.” “For far too long, indigenous peoples were justified in saying that their voices were smothered by the darkness of intolerance and neglect – from now on, this Forum will be there to bring their concerns to light,” Ms. Fréchette added. Among the other high-level UN officials addressing the meeting, Ivan Simonovic of Croatia, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to which the new panel will report, said the Forum represented a chance to make up for some of the numerous injustices experienced by indigenous peoples. Calling it an “open, transparent, and participatory body, he said he looked forward to the first proposals it would produce. For her part, Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed that among the many pressing issues facing indigenous peoples, providing a voice for young people and countering discrimination were paramount. Other key topics that the Forum might take up were land, “which goes to the heart of indigenous culture and identity,” and protection of the environment. Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), added that given the links of indigenous peoples to nature, it would not be possible to protect the rights of such peoples without protecting the environment in which they lived. He hoped that the economic, political, social and cultural rights of indigenous peoples would be pushed through in the implementation of the wide-ranging development targets set out at the 2000 “Millennium Session” of the UN General Assembly. In her statement to the meeting, Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), said 17 paragraphs of the Centre’s plan of action, the Habitat Agenda, concerned indigenous issues. UN-Habitat wanted to support the economic activities of indigenous people and secure their safe interaction with other economies, she stressed. “This is a historic day,” said Ole Henrik Magga, Chairman of the Forum, at a press conference following the opening meeting. “Many of our peoples have worked so hard for so many years and they are still working to be recognized at home. For those who are not recognized at home, it is a great, immense help that we are now recognized here at the United Nations,” Mr. Magga added, stressing the importance of working to ensure recognition of both the collective and cultural rights of indigenous peoples. Established in 2000 by the UN’s Economic and Social Council, the Forum, which is composed of 16 independent experts, is mandated to discuss indigenous issues relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. It will meet once a year for 10 working days and submit an annual report to the Council on its activities, including recommendations for approval. According to the UN, it is estimated that there are at least 5,000 indigenous groups composed of 300 million people living in more than 70 countries on five continents. Growing awareness of the critical situation of indigenous people and their invaluable contribution to the survival of humankind led the UN in 1995 to proclaim the International Decade for the World Indigenous Peoples. Video – Opening session of the Forum read more