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Update: Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

25 August 2000

Joan Macdonald, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

This Update is from Joan Macdonald, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. It is in four sections:

  1. ECOSOC Press Release, 31 July 2000;
  2. Comments by Bob Scott, World Council of Churches (WCC) Programme on Racism, Geneva;
  3. What you can do about this;
  4. Further information from the UN Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

1) Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, ECOSOC Press Release.

On 31st July 2000 the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) announced that they had adopted a resolution to establish a Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues (PF). According to their press release the Permanent Forum will break new ground. Indigenous representatives, not only representatives of member states, will for the first time, participate in a high level forum in the United Nations (UN) system.

Indigenous Peoples have been seeking representation on the international level since they first approached the League of Nations early in the twentieth century.

When the UN General Assembly adopted the programme of activities for the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004) it identified the Forum as one of the main objectives of the Decade. It also called for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People(s) to be observed annually on 9 August, as part of the Decade.

The Forum will be a subsidiary organ of ECOSOC and will consist of 16 representatives. Eight are to be nominated by governments and elected by the Council and eight are to be appointed by the President of the Council following broad consultations with indigenous organisations and groups.

Organisations of Indigenous Peoples may participate in the Forum as observers, as may states, UN bodies and intergovernmental and non-government organisations (NGOs).

Historically, Indigenous Peoples have struggled to make their concerns heard. Their circumstances and needs went largely unnoticed by the international community until a study was undertaken in the 1970s, by the UN Subcommission on the Protection of Minorities and Prevention of Discrimination. This led to the establishment of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) which met for the first time on 9 August 1982.

The Working Group has completed several studies - on the relationship of Indigenous Peoples to the land, on treaties and agreements, and on the protection of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Peoples. The Working Group has consistently reported that Indigenous Peoples around the world continue to be among the most marginalised and impoverished, and that their ways of life, cultural heritage and languages continue to be threatened. At the same time, the various world conferences of recent years have repeatedly validated the contribution of indigenous societies, particularly regarding sustainable development and the protection of the planet’s diversity. (ECOSOC Press Release, 31 July 2000)

2) Comments by Bob Scott, World Council of Churches (WCC) Programme on Racism, Geneva.

In response to this Press Release from ECOSOC, Bob Scott, who works in Geneva for the World Council of Churches (WCC) Programme on Racism has sent the following information. He has been following the discussions in Geneva and the debate has been fairly closely monitored by the WCC.

The fact that a Permanent Forum has been established is reason for some rejoicing. It is the least that should happen during the dismal Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which has been marked by low funding and no energy on the part of most governments. During last week’s UNWGIP, Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was publicly and privately criticised by Indigenous representatives for her own lack of commitment to the Decade.

From the early stages the Indigenous caucus pursued the proposal that the Permanent Forum should come within ECOSOC.

Bob was hoping that the UN Secretary General would accept that it be placed in the structure reporting directly to him, having its own integrity and space and not, as it is now, subsumed within someone else’s space, i.e. ECOSOC. It is also going to present difficulties about accreditation of Indigenous Nations and organisations. The UNWGIP has always been flexible about Indigenous representation. This may not carry over into the PF.

Most governments have a jaundiced view of the UNWGIP, because Indigenous representatives are present in such large numbers - over 800 at the last meeting, and have preferred to keep their comments and debating points to the intersessional Working Group where the numbers are greatly reduced because of accreditation difficulties and because few Indigenous nations can afford to come to Geneva more than once a year.

The PF is only an advisory group to ECOSOC. There are to be 16 representatives, 8 nominated by governments, who will hopefully see fit to nominate some Indigenous representatives and 8 appointed by the President of the Council. The current recipe does not guarantee that those who have led the debates with fire, energy and sharp analysis in the last 20 years will find easy acceptance among the eight.

Indigenous Nations and organisations will propose names to the ECOSOC president and he will choose from that list. Imagine choosing 8 places to represent hundreds of Indigenous identities. It could work against the relative harmony that has been achieved over the last decade. Who will represent our region a Mäori, Australian Aborigine, Fijian, West Papuan, Kanaky, or Solomon Island person ?

Once the PF has been established, and has held its first annual session, the Council will review, without prejudicing any outcome, all existing mechanisms, procedures and programmes within the UN system concerning indigenous issues, including the UNWGIP.

This is clearly an attempt to get rid of the UNWGIP, a view that the NZ government has held for some time but will never say publicly.

Over the years the UNWGIP has become a remarkable forum for: a) review of developments for Indigenous Peoples; and b) where standard setting can be undertaken. The most notable achievement has been the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - it took nearly 15 years of Indigenous participation to finalise a text, and it is currently embroiled in slow debates within yet another Inter-sessional working group.

But perhaps most of all the Working Group has become an incredible networking opportunity which successive Mäori delegations have contributed to in no small measure. The agenda for the annual sessions of the PF will be much tighter and allow much less room for a large number of reviews from Indigenous communities.

The UNWGIP is made up of 4 people none of whom is indigenous. They are members of the Subcommission on Human Rights who have been seconded by that body to be their Working Group on Indigenous Peoples and to report back to the Subcommission. So they sit and hear the interventions, while the governments sit as observer governments and the UN agencies are also observers, both with speaking rights. The Indigenous representatives are allowed as NGOs with speaking rights.

Who is elected to the PF and who they elect as their chairperson is vitally important. Should the chairperson be a person of great mana, great wisdom and political dexterity then she/he could be a tremendous asset to the advancement rights within the UN.” (Report by Bob Scott, World Council of Churches (WCC) Programme on Racism, Geneva).

3) What you can do about this:

It is interesting to note that the ECOSOC Statement does not mention the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One of the reasons why it is taking so long to get through the debate before it becomes a final document is because there are so many objections by governments such as ours about what the document says. For example the NZ government cannot accept the right to self-determination “Article 3 - Indigenous Peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

The ECOSOC Statement also does not mention some of the difficulties that Bob Scott has mentioned.

It seems from this that what we need our government to do at present is:

a) to support the continuation of the UNWGIP because of its importance as a forum;

b) to stop objecting to Article 3; and to encourage other governments to get on with finalising the text of the Draft Declaration, its presentation and its ratification. That is of course provided the text is still what the Indigenous Peoples want and has not been modified against their wishes.

* Who you can contact:

By telephone or fax (all to be prefixed by 04 by those of you out of Wellington) - Helen Clark, Prime Minister, office - tel 471 9998, fax 473 3579; Phil Goff, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, office - tel 471 9370, fax 495 8444; Margaret Wilson, Attorney General, office - tel 470 6559, fax 495 8460; Parekura Horomia, Minister of Mäori Affairs, tel 470 6573, fax 495 8473.

By letter - addressed your letter to the relevant person and post to Parliament Buildings, Wellington (no stamp needed).

4) Further information - Report on Indigenous Issues from the UN Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

Erica-Irene Daes, Subcommission expert, says she has prepared a working paper on discrimination against Indigenous Peoples and has presented it to the Preparatory Committee of the World Conference against Racism which is being held in South Africa in 2001.

She has recommended that the Preparatory Committee ensure a mechanism for the full participation of Indigenous Peoples and their organisations at the World Conference, as well as at regional meetings and seminars. It was not enough simply to follow the rules of ECOSOC.

She has also recommended that an official observance of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People be included at the World Conference, and that indigenous representatives be invited to address the plenary session of the Conference; that the High Commissioner organise a seminar on Indigenous Peoples and the administration of justice in advance of the Conference, to bring important information before the World Conference and that a parallel activity be held at the time of the World Conference, such as a roundtable, on measures taken to end discrimination against Indigenous Peoples; and the term Indigenous Peoples be used instead of such euphemisms as indigenous populations. (UN Press Release, 7 August 2000).

Human rights index page
Indigenous rights index page


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