By Rizwy Raheem*
The world’s indigenous peoples – estimated at over 370 million living across 90 countries and accounting for 15 percent of the poorest – remain isolated, both politically and geographically.
So, nearly a thousand participants from Asia, Africa, North America, Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean gathered together to air their grievances before the United Nations at a two-week long conference, which concluded May 20.
Their plea for inclusiveness was a reiteration of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s appeal to the international community on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for a more humane and prosperous world for all – “leaving no one behind”.
The conference ended with a resounding call for greater participation in the United Nations and in UN bodies by some of the world’s most neglected minorities who are increasingly victims of armed conflicts, corporate greed and rising economic inequalities.
Since the establishment of a UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000, and despite a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, indigenous groups have expressed great concern over the growing number of military conflicts affecting them worldwide.
The most affected are indigenous people caught in crossfires in current and past armed conflicts in Colombia, India, Myanmar, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Guatemala and Peru, according to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz of the Philippines, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The grave consequences include forced displacement, extra-judicial executions, sexual violence and forced recruitment of child soldiers.
“The violations against indigenous peoples in the context of armed conflicts cause trauma and irreparable harm, destroy their culture and rip apart the social fabric of the affected indigenous communities,” she declared.
Not surprisingly, the theme of the conference was: “Indigenous Peoples: Conflict, Peace and Resolution.”
According to the United Nations, extractive industries, including mining oil palm plantations and the construction of dams, often take place without the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples.
During violent conflicts, indigenous peoples are often among the most vulnerable due to situations of poverty, political marginalization and systemic discrimination that many still face.
At the conclusion of the meeting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon admitted that while much has been achieved to improve the rights of indigenous peoples, conflicts on their lands and territories, and the lack of inclusion of their voices in peace processes, remain a challenge.
He called on all Member States and the entire UN system to work together to address these and other serious concerns.
Stressing that indigenous peoples are firmly on the UN agenda, and were fully engaged in negotiations for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change, “it is now crucial that they also participate in and contribute to implementation and follow-up”.
Ban urged indigenous peoples to remain engaged and actively participate in the process initiated by the President of the General Assembly to enable their representation in meetings of relevant UN bodies.
Briefing reporters May 19, Alvaro Esteban Pop of Guatemala, Chair of the Forum, said that among the most significant topics discussed during the session were peace and conflict resolution; the issue of children and women in situations of violence; and the persecution of leaders involved in conflicts over land and natural resources.
“These are fundamental aspects of any negotiation and any region in the pursuit of resolutions and peace therein,” he stressed.
Pop said while dialogue had not been easy over the last two weeks, it was absolutely necessary to be able to continue working together.
“Every day we learn more,” he added. He said many indigenous speakers had described the serious situation of their respective people, in particular their struggle to access land and resources, the violence and abuse suffered by indigenous women and girls, and their lack of access to health and education.
Indigenous women had made their “voices of protest heard”, he noted. Also, the high rate of suicide among indigenous youth, which related to colonial injustices of the past, was simply unacceptable, he declared.
“While it was essential to ensure broad partnership among indigenous peoples, Governments and the United Nations, the Organization could serve as an indispensable bridge of communication between Member States and indigenous peoples,” he added.
Joan Carling, a Forum member from the Philippines, said 2017 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“It will be a critical year in terms of reviewing what has been achieved,” she said, adding that discussions at next year’s Forum will revolve around how further implementation of the Declaration can be achieved.
She stressed the importance of UN Funds and Programmes to support legislative action for the Declaration’s inclusion in national laws and policies.
Carling also said discussions at this year’s Forum had made it “very clear” that many indigenous peoples are not aware of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which therefore indicates a need for outreach and awareness-raising on the issue.
Another crucial element involves incorporating specific targets and indicators relating to indigenous peoples into the SDGs, although in this sense she noted the lack of data disaggregation as a factor impeding the measurement of progress towards meeting any specific targets.
The conference ended with several key recommendations to the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), including the preservation of indigenous languages.
In the absence of such a measure, the Forum warned that more than half of the world’s indigenous languages would become extinct by 2100 and recommended that Member States recognize the language rights of indigenous peoples and develop policies to promote and protect indigenous languages, including by supporting full immersion methods.
It further recommended that States and the United Nations system provide support, including funding, for the efforts of indigenous peoples’ institutions to preserve and revitalize their languages, and that the General Assembly proclaim an International Year of Indigenous Languages by 2020.
Additionally, it called upon Member States to implement the recommendations of the international expert working group meeting on indigenous youth held in 2013, and urged the consideration of a distinct United Nations voluntary fund for indigenous youth, or the earmarking of existing and future funds for that purpose.
It also urged Member States to take all measures necessary for the prevention of self-harm and suicide among indigenous children and young people, recommending that States adopt measures to address the specific problems of police brutality, systemic police violence and discrimination against indigenous women.