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  • Writer's pictureAntonio Gonzales

Level of Participation in World Conference Sparks Intense Debate as Permanent Forum on Indigenous Is

Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Thirteenth Session

9th & 10th Meetings (AM & PM)

Indigenous peoples must be able to participate fully, equally and effectively in all stages of the upcoming high-level General Assembly meeting to address their most important concerns, speakers said today as the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues debated — at times forcefully — the essential elements for contributing to the unprecedented event.

In one of three presentations by those involved in steering negotiations, Crispin Gregoire, Adviser of the President of the General Assembly, recalled that in 2010, the Assembly had decided to convene a high-level plenary meeting — the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples — from 22 to 23 September 2014, with the goal of sharing perspectives and best practices for realizing those peoples’ rights. In 2012, a “modalities resolution” was adopted, specifying organizational arrangements and conferring on the Assembly President responsibility for organizing the Conference.

“The President has been attentive to provisions of the modalities resolution and understands the importance of consensus by both Member States and indigenous peoples as regards the content of the outcome document, themes of round-table and panel discussions and effective participation of indigenous peoples in the process,” he said. As none of the proposals for formulating the outcome document enjoyed agreement, he presented a road map by which the President would convene an “open and inclusive” consultation with States and indigenous peoples, assisted by two advisers each from those stakeholder groups.

The President would invite States and indigenous representatives to share their ideas on content, Mr. Crispin said. He would then prepare a “zero draft” of an outcome document, with assistance from the advisers. A follow-up consultation would be held for parties to share their views, and a revised draft document would be prepared, to serve as the basis for advancing negotiations. The President would hold the first consultation on or before 29 May. The interactive hearing called for in the modalities resolution would be held in June, with a date to be communicated by the end of the week.

Alili Keskitalo, President of the Saami Parliament of Norway, said indigenous peoples would study that proposal carefully before taking a final position. The World Conference offered a “tremendous” opportunity for the United Nations to promote the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as replicate the process which had led to the text’s 2007 adoption: an open and inclusive dialogue among States and indigenous peoples.

The Saami Parliament had worked with Mexico, she said, to facilitate discussions on the modalities for the conference, which had resulted in the 2012 resolution for indigenous peoples to participate at the Assembly level. Since then, indigenous peoples had engaged in the preparatory process. The 2013 Indigenous Preparatory Conference for the World Conference, held in Alta, Norway, had produced a text that would serve as their contribution to discussions on the outcome document. With some exceptions, indigenous peoples were ready to engage in the World Conference process, provided that it ensured their full and effective participation.

Hjalmar Dahl, co-chair of the Global Coordinating Group, explaining that the Group was tasked with coordinating indigenous peoples’ preparatory activities for the high-level meeting, said until recently, it had comprised seven geopolitical regions, as well as the Indigenous Women’s Caucus and the Indigenous Youth Caucus. Recent developments, however, had prompted the North American Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus to withdraw, and the Group now must formally meet and agree on a process to determine a new name. The “modalities resolution” had not been fully realized, he said, as organizational matters, such as the interactive hearing and drafting of a final outcome, were pending.

“The lack of progress is clearly frustrating for indigenous peoples,” he said, adding that the resolution “must be implemented in such a way as to uphold the principle of equal participation”. As States appeared reluctant to change, he pressed the President to urgently carry out his work to ensure indigenous peoples’ full and equal participation in the process. With that in mind, he reiterated support for Mirna Cunningham and Les Malezer to serve as indigenous advisers to the President.

When the floor was opened for debate, indigenous speakers implored Governments and the United Nations itself to respect their right to full, direct, equal and effective participation throughout all stages of the preparations and in the high-level event itself, in line with the 2012 “modalities resolution”. Yet, there were shades of difference in positions, with some stressing they would not accept anything less and others emphasizing their readiness to work with the Assembly President to arrive at a consensus solution.

In that context, the representative of the North America Indigenous Peoples Caucus called for cancellation of the Conference, as the Assembly President, in his 26 February 2014 letter, had made clear that equal and effective participation would not be allowed. The Caucus had called on Mexico to cancel its planned technical meeting on the outcome document, and it had done so. It now called on the Forum to cancel any preparatory or advisory meetings for the Conference. “Nothing was said today that substantially changes the [Assembly President’s] memoire,” she stressed.

Echoing that call, the representative of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, speaking for 10 organizations, questioned how the high-level meeting could be inclusive when the Assembly President had held a weekend meeting with three indigenous peoples to discuss changes to the modalities. She opposed the appointment of Ms. Cunningham and Mr. Malezer on grounds that their status was inherently unequal to that of the State advisers and that they were not consensus candidates. Also, the informal interactive hearing would not have an official record, meaning that taking on board recommendations of indigenous peoples would be on a voluntary basis by States.

The representative of the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade called the high-level meeting “an insult”, as it would deny an opportunity to devise an action plan for repairing 500 years of colonialism. Rather than a serious United Nations conference, it would be a “hurried genuflection at the altar of indigenous rights”, perpetuating a reality that had left 370 million people at the bottom of the ladder as global genocidal forces squeezed them socially, culturally and politically in their struggle for survival.

The representative of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples added that unless indigenous peoples had the chance to validate the outcome document before its adoption at the World Conference, it would never be accepted globally. States that opposed equal participation were showing contempt for indigenous rights and disregard for the United Nations Charter.

Other indigenous speakers took a more moderate view, expressing their desire to open dialogue with States in order to understand their concerns. The representative of the Pacific Caucus said his delegation would continue to work with the United Nations and States to ensure a meaningful contribution. Likewise, the representative of the African Caucus recognized the President’s efforts to reach a compromise. Concerned by the lack of interest among African States, he urged them to review their positions, especially as Uganda might preside over the Conference. In meetings with South Africa, Burundi, Namibia, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon, the Caucus had found “positive views” regarding Conference preparations, he noted.

A number of speakers today recalled that the adoption in 2007 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples had been the result of an inclusive, transparent dialogue. They said the World Conference offered a chance to continue that practice and strengthen trust in a spirit of partnership and respect. Several, including from the Asian Caucus, supported the 2013 Alta Declaration as a draft negotiating document for the Conference, while others, including from the Central and South American and the Caribbean Caucus, supported the appointment of Ms. Cunningham and Mr. Malezer as advisers to the President.

Also weighing in on the issue were more than 20 Government representatives, attending as observers, some of whom supported existing guidelines for indigenous peoples’ participation in the Conference and others calling for full and active inclusion in the process based on the Rights Declaration.

The representative of the Russian Federation said current rules and General Assembly resolutions, including resolution 66/296, must guide Conference procedures and, accordingly, indigenous peoples’ views should be reflected in informal intergovernmental consultations and in the outcome document.

Some representatives supported the Assembly President’s proposal for an inclusive process, such as Mexico’s delegate, who said the modalities resolution was the appropriate road map for an acceptable Conference outcome, while Sweden’s delegate noted with concern the lack of progress in terms of holding an inclusive informal consultation process. “Participating in decision-making processes is of fundamental importance for the realization of the rights of indigenous peoples and is a core element of the Declaration,” she asserted.

Representatives of several other States agreed, including from Paraguay, Canada and Denmark on behalf of Greenland. El Salvador’s speaker said the prevailing view of “nothing about us without us” should be applied to Conference procedures, while Chile’s representative said “a historic debt has not yet been paid back to indigenous peoples” and their inclusion was essential to the Conference’s success. Finland’s speaker underlined that failure to fully include indigenous peoples would jeopardize the legitimacy of the Conference and its outcome document. Ecuador’s representative called on Member States to include indigenous peoples in their delegations.

Taking that call to heart, Australia’s representative said her country was considering sending a high-level delegation and was examining support for indigenous delegates to participate in Conference proceedings.

Echoing a widely held view, the United States’ representative said despite varying views on the meaningful participation of indigenous peoples, the arrangement ultimately must satisfy them.

More broadly, Brazil’s delegate advocated for reform of international institutions tasked with safeguarding indigenous peoples’ rights. Special attention should be paid to the Forum, which was among the smallest United Nations human rights bodies. He proposed expanding its membership to 20 from 16, adding that indigenous rights would be better addressed if they remained under the mandate of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, rather than with an Under-Secretary-General for Indigenous Peoples, as proposed by the Alta text.

Also speaking were Forum members from the Philippines, Bolivia and Bangladesh.

Representatives of the following indigenous organizations also delivered statements: Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), Information and Education Network of Indigenous Peoples (LIENIP), COINCABOL, Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, Secretario Comision Asunto Indigenas del Congreso Mexicano, Youth Caucus, Tebtebba, Disability Caucus, Union of Communities of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indigenas de las Americas, Centro de Estudios de Tecnologias Apropiada al Qullasuyu, CAOI, Indigenous World Association and the Mejlis of Crimean Tatar People.

Representatives of Guatemala, Guyana, Bolivia, Norway, Peru, South Africa, Colombia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Mexico (on behalf of 11 States) and Costa Rica spoke as observers.

Also speaking were representatives of the following funds, programmes and agencies: the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), United Nations Indigenous Peoples Partnerships (UNIPP), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

A permanent observer of the Inter-Parliamentary Union also spoke.

The Forum will reconvene at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 20 May, to continue its work.

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