December 1, 2002

UN permanent forum on indigenous issues

By Joshua Cooper

The idea of a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was originally drafted at the UN World Conference on Human Rights based on suggestion by the Indigenous Initiative for Peace convened by Rigoberta Menchu Tum. From 1993 to present day, indigenous representatives mobilize moral persuasion for a full-functioning forum where indigenous peoples sit among nations as equals in leadership and legislative abilities with a secretariat staffed with experts in indigenous rights. In 2002, 80 years after Deskaheh desired to be accepted among the other nations, indigenous peoples are invited inside instead of speaking only to civil society in the streets and seminar halls. Indigenous peoples at the first session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues continue to engage civil society, yet, they are also accepted inside to speak and be respected as equal participants in the realization of the human rights of indigenous Peoples.

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues represents the regions of the world according to the indigenous peoples viewpoint including the Arctic and Pacific along with the traditional UN regions. Eight indigenous representatives chosen by indigenous peoples in regional meetings and processes sat in equal position of leadership with eight representatives selected by governments of the world. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues started with a traditional prayer conducted by Tadodaho Sid Hill.
The spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee welcomed the over 850 participants with a ceremonial invocation to a continent and a global gathering indigenous peoples weren't always invited to. Tadodaho, a spiritual leader title dating back over one thousand years, said, "I greet you to the Northeast Territory of the great Turtle Island now known as North America." The Haudenosaunee attempted to enter the global gathering half a century earlier and finally were able to participate in the global process and even welcome other indigenous leaders from around the world. At the opening day of the inaugural session, the UN Economic and Social Council President Ivan Simonovic (Croatia) said the words indigenous peoples longed to hear, "Welcome to the United Nations family."

Julian Burger, UN Indigenous Peoples Unit, said, "The Permanent Forum is a kind of pilot project. We do not know quite what it will do. It has a mandate. It has 16 members. Eight are indigenous peoples experts and other eight are governmental experts. It is a body reporting at very high level in the UN system. It has a very broad mandate on everything that would be of interest to indigenous peoples -- development, environment, health, education, culture, media if necessary and human rights of course. It is a completely new idea for the UN. Here is a body which is actually very broadly based, holistic in approach. Whereas very often the UN tends to compartmentalize, we have disarmament, human rights, development and environment. We tend to break things up into little bits and here we have new body that is trying to look at everything as a whole. That is novel." The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is based on what indigenous peoples desired to focus on the UN specialized agencies to include and investigate claims concerning indigenous peoples within their mandates. The UN PFII reflects the holistic focus indigenous peoples bring toward international organization based on indigenous beliefs.

There are many issues for the UN PFII to concentrate on to combat centuries of discrimination and create a global civil society including indigenous peoples as equal and in dignity.
Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette said, "Indigenous peoples have been killed, tortured and enslaved. They have been deprived of their political rights, such as the right to vote. Their lands have been taken over by conquest and colonization, or decreed to be terra nullius and claimed for national development. Even today, their children too often grow up in poverty, and die from malnutrition and disease. In some countries, indigenous people are still not allowed to study their own languages in school. Their sacred objects have been stolen and displayed, in violation of their beliefs. They face discrimination and exploitation. And all too often, governments have resisted the use of the word peoples, with an s. Instead they have preferred the singular, so as to avoid recognizing collective rights. This Forum will certainly have its hands full. Questions of self-determination, self-rule, and autonomy raise fundamental issues of sovereignty"

Julian Burger said, "Indigenous peoples who are after all non-governmental actors are at high level working together with governments really in partnership. Governmental and indigenous experts have to decide together on the agenda, the contents of the meeting but also the results of what recommendations will come out of the forum. It will not be a situation where indigenous peoples are participating, offering ideas and then hoping that governments listening will include some of them. This is really an equal body which indigenous peoples can veto a proposal they don’t like or make a proposal. It is an unusual body in that sense. It is completely open to all indigenous representatives."

Through the elevated level of the UN PFII, indigenous peoples are able to engage specialized agencies in seeking solutions and empower indigenous communities in suggesting steps toward realization of recognized areas of concern. It is also important to note that indigenous peoples can also continue to provide input in indigenous affairs but also transform the UN to allow for greater participation of all people directly affected in UN affairs.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted, "With the inauguration of this Forum, indigenous issues assume their rightful place higher on the international agenda than ever before. We begin a new chapter in the history of indigenous peoples at the United Nations. It is entirely appropriate that as victims of discrimination, and as some of the worlds poorest of the poor, indigenous peoples have a platform where they can raise their concerns."
Tony Sinclair, a Maori lawyer, commented on the creation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, "It gives a consistent and regular presence of indigenous peoples within the UN."

Rigoberta Menchu Tum maintains indigenous peoples can contribute to the global civil society. The Nobel Laureate for Peace said, "Many people have said that indigenous peoples are myths of the past, ruins that have died. But the indigenous community is full of vitality and has a course and a future. It has much wisdom and richness to contribute."

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is significant for its level position in the UN legal charter body labyrinth and its purpose of indigenous peoples directly engaging UN specialized agencies. Beginning with the oldest specialized agency, the ILO, indigenous peoples have participated in the decision-making process from creating the only international convention guaranteeing rights, Convention 107, to even a revision rescinding its paternalistic tone with Convention 169. Indigenous peoples have attempted to advocate with the specialized agencies and have even infiltrated the most recent body of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Even with newly created organization such as the World Trade Organization, indigenous peoples able to continue struggle for self-determination and not allow rights to be extinguished according to new instruments. The legacy of colonization continues in indigenous peoples perspective and is continuously challenged at the UN level.