Concerns of Indigenous Peoples Raised at UN

by | May 19, 2016 | News, Vincentian Family, Vincentian Family at the U.N.


Margaret O’Dwyer, DC writes,  “Over 1,000 people gathered at the UN last week for the 15th Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, focusing on the theme, “Conflict, peace, and resolution.” It was an apropos focus, as the world’s 370 million Indigenous Peoples face innumerable struggles.”

Onondaga Nation Chief Todadaho Sid Hill provided a traditional welcome at the Forum’s opening session May 10. “We receive on earth compassion and love. We are lucky he (the Creator) gave us a way to make right on earth. So, let’s bring our minds together in a kindly way.”

Chief Hill’s “kindly way” is badly needed. According to the Concept Note for the Forum, “Even in peaceful societies, indigenous peoples often find themselves involved in situations that escalate to conflict mostly relating to their lands, territories and resources or their civil, political, cultural, social, and economic rights. The rapid pace of globalization and processes to identify new venues for resource exploitation has accelerated such conflicts on indigenous peoples’ land (Concept Note, at page 2).

Highlights of the Forum’s first week included the launch of a system-wide action plan to realize full rights of these peoples; the announcement of Canada’s full support for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP); a serious conversation with youth; appeals that Indigenous Nations receive unique status at the UN; and repeated cries about conflicts over land and resources.

“Lasting peace requires that Indigenous Peoples have access to cultural, social and economic justice,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in a pre-recorded message shown to a packed General Assembly Hall gathering as the Forum commenced.

Said Mogens Lykketoft, President of the 70th General Assembly, in his remarks: “Indigenous persons have the right to contribute or provide enriching input to all that is going on in the UN,” he said. “All too often Indigenous Persons have been targeted when they speak up and historically excluded at all levels, resulting in extreme harm to individuals, communities, identities.”

System—Wide Action Plan

The Secretary General announced the system-wide action plan in his pre-recorded statement. The six-point plan will:

  1. Raise awareness on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and indigenous issues The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the General Assembly on Thursday, 13 September 2007
  2. Support the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly at the country level
  3. Support the realization of Indigenous Peoples rights in the implementation and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
  4. Conduct a mapping exercise of existing policies, standards, guidelines, activities, resources and capacities within the UN and multilateral system to identify opportunities and gaps
  5. Develop capacities of states, Indigenous Peoples, civil society and UN personnel at all levels
  6. Support the participation of Indigenous Peoples in processes that affect them.


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In what could be a major step towards reconciliation with Indigenous People, Honorable Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, announced May 10 that the country is now a full supporter of UNDRIP, “without qualification.” UNDRIP was originally adopted in 2007, with four member states (including the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia) opposing. The four member states have now reversed their stances.


Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth,  addressed the Youth Session, May 11, bringing to light issues of self-harm and suicide. Member states had committed to supporting the empowerment of indigenous youth and their participation in decision-making following the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples held in New York.

“In practice, however, large numbers of indigenous children and youth are unable to exercise and access these basic human rights,” said Alhendawi. “They continue to suffer from preventable diseases and lack of adequate medical care. They have limited access to basic education, and to culturally appropriate education in their mother tongues. They do not always receive the necessary support from the local authorities when they try to stand up for their human rights. They are often made to feel ashamed of their identity.”

Rapper Nils Rune, known as SlinCraze, who is one of about only 20,000 people who speak his native Sami language, performed May 11, sending a musical message to indigenous youth not to be ashamed of their culture. Rune lives in a small village in the Norwegian Arctic.

Alhendawi provided stunning figures regarding suicide among indigenous youth. Among Inuit youth in Canada, he reported, suicide rates are among the highest in the world–eleven-times the national average. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Aboriginal people ages 15-35 in Australia. Thirty percent of deaths in that age group are reported as suicides. The community of Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario declared a state of emergency after 11 people, mostly young people, tried to take their own lives on a single day last month, bringing the total number of attempts to over 100 since last fall. In New Zealand, in 2012, the Māori youth suicide rate was nearly three times that of non-Māori youth.

Some suicide causes mentioned in a visual include a feeling of not belonging when indigenous families are moved from ancestral lands; having to choose between native cultures and the modern world; discrimination; trauma imposed by persons connected with efforts to remove resources; lack of indigenous representation among teachers and counselors in education systems; insufficient access to mental health care; cyber bullying; racist stereotypes; and more.

“This means we need to define what would constitute a good or meaningful opportunity for indigenous youth,” said Alhendawi. “And to do so, we need to engage with indigenous youth and their representatives and communities. We need to listen to their voices and be sensitive to their concerns and priorities.  We need to see indigenous youth not only for the challenges they are facing, but also for the incredible potential they offer.  We need to see them not as a liability, but as an asset.”


Many Forum voices also spoke up on behalf of indigenous women. In a recent report, UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, examined the human rights situation of indigenous women and girls. She concluded that “indigenous women experience a broad, multifaceted and complex spectrum of mutually reinforcing human rights abuses.”

Indigenous women are victims of violence in the context of conflicts, poverty, trafficking, domestic violence, inadequate health services, and the struggle to preserve ancestral lands. (In example, Bertha Caceres was murdered trying to protect land of the Lenca People from construction of a dam in Honduras). In some countries, women are victims of a caste system. The Forum featured a short documentary titled, “Women’s Right Activists in Ecuador: Our Stories, Our Lives, Our Work,” in which women of various backgrounds spoke about the history of their struggles in combating patriarchy.

Said Forum Chair Alvaro Pop, “Although women and men face common challenges, there can be no doubt that Indigenous women and children are more vulnerable and suffer more in times of conflict. There can be no peace to these conflicts unless Indigenous Persons are equal participants in any plan for peace and resolution.”


The UN conducted on-line consultations in March and April to determine ways of enhancing full participation of indigenous persons in UN matters. In-person consultations are occurring during the current forum. Because Indigenous Persons are not NGOs, many feel there should be a new category for participation at the UN with a focus on indigenous governing institutions. There were calls from some who offered statements last week for Permanent Observer Status and co-facilitation of UN events involving Indigenous Persons. Some favor enhanced participation at all relevant UN events. Others asked for greater communication, via information technology, about opportunities to participate.


The Forum’s Concept Note clarifies the experience of many indigenous people. “Activities of extractive industries, including the building of dams, mining, oil palm plantations etc., have devastating consequences on indigenous peoples’ lands and livelihoods. The projects often take place without the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples, and thereby undermine their basic right to self-determination. Furthermore, the projects affect the environment, cause displacement and landlessness and violate indigenous peoples’ right to health through the negative environmental health impacts such as contaminated soils, air, water and heightened levels of violence in the areas surrounding extractive activities. Although indigenous peoples have often opposed these projects, this has not deterred or halted the projects with grave human rights violations as a consequence. (Concept Note at Page 2).”

A large percentage of indigenous people live in Asia. At a May 10 Forum session, major challenges in the region were described. They related to militarization and the denial of indigenous self-determination and rights to land. Examples were given of land grabbing and forced eviction by military. But the human rights abuses recounted by Forum participants who gave statements were by no means limited to Asia. There were also discussions of land grabbing, pollution, burned homes, murders, and armed conflict in parts of South America. It would seem that indigenous persons worldwide are struggling to protect their land. In one Friday statement, an NGO representative quoted Global Witness, which reports that 40 per cent of environmental activists murdered in 2014 were Indigenous Persons, with most people dying over disputes about hydropower, mining, and agri-business.

Sustainable Development Goal 16 calls for the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies with access to justice for all and effective, accountable and inclusive institutions. Hopefully, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will lead to the realization of this goal among Indigenous People. The Forum runs through May 20.


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