Human Rights · Riding A Dead Horse · United Nations

The Rooms Of Ruin (or the Eighteenth Report on the 61st UN Commission on Human Rights, April 11, 2005, on Indigenous Issues)

Monday April 11 saw the entrance of a multitude of indigenous peoples from around the world to intervene on Item 15, Indigenous Issues, an agenda item of the Commission that is fixed due to the fact that most indigenous people have limited resources and this makes it easier for them to know when their item will come up and be present in Geneva.

The first presentation was from Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, where he discussed his report focusing on indigenous peoples and the right to education, as well as country visits to Canada and Colombia. In terms of his study on indigenous peoples and education, he mentioned how indigenous children tend to have lesser access to proper education than their non-indigenous counterparts, and noted that education is not just the right to go to school, but also to receive a proper and non-discriminatory education. Many indigenous children have no choice but to attend schools where assimilatory education is taught, encouraging the loss of their indigenous languages, erasing the history of genocide common in all parts of the world against indigenous peoples, as well as a devaluing of their traditional educational systems and culture in general. Mr. Stavenhagen pointed out that his next report will focus on national legislation and indigenous peoples, to examine their protection or lack thereof in various countries around the world. In terms of his Colombia visit, he stated that although there have been legislative advances in the nation, there are huge problems with violence against indigenous communities in light of government policies and also the armed conflict that has been going on for many years. He discussed assassinations of indigenous human rights defenders and spiritual leaders, displacement of indigenous communities, forced recruitment into the armed forces, widespread rape of indigenous women and children, organized crime among other human rights violations. Mr. Stavenhagen affirmed the near extinction of several Amazonian tribes due to these violations, and encouraged the Colombian government to protect non-combatants. He remarked that much of the rape and violence against indigenous populations was in fact done by the Colombian armed forces. In terms of his visit to Canada, he stated that even though Canada ranks very high in the Human Development Index, aboriginal populations live far below acceptable standards in terms of health, education and non-discrimination. Although there are a great number of treaties between Canada, the Queen of England and indigenous populations within the borders, historical reclamation of indigenous rights continues to be a contested issue although it really should not be. Mr. Stavenhagen encouraged Canada to lessen the gap in human rights protection between indigenous and non-indigenous sectors of Canadian society, especially in terms of their penal system.

Colombia, as a concerned country, refuted Mr. Stavenhagen’s claims that human rights violations were taking place against indigenous populations first of all by armed forces and secondly because of ethnically-based targeting. Colombia claimed that all of the violence against indigenous peoples was by the illegal armed groups (paramilitaries? I am not sure if I understand the difference between one group of men with guns and another…) and they assured the Commission that all indigenous territories are marked as neutral. At this moment, they stuttered quite badly in speaking, which to me signified a Spirit trying to get them to stop lying by grabbing their voice and preventing them from continuing. They then went on to talk about all of the helpful legislation that protects all indigenous populations as well as all Colombian citizens, and that the promotion of human rights for all will continue to be their top priority. You will recall the Defense Statement, this was a good example.

Canada, as a concerned country, in another perfect Defense Statement said that all of the things mentioned by Mr. Stavenhagen in his report as problem areas in Canada had already been identified by the government and measure were in the works to improve the ‘unacceptable’ situation for aboriginal Canadians. They moved into the meat of their Defense by noting the various legislation they had enacted to protect and promote the human rights of indigenous peoples to right the injustices of the past, especially in the area of health. At this point, the Canadian delegate also stuttered quite strongly.

During the Interactive Dialogue Indonesia commented that only some countries in the world have indigenous populations, and Indonesia does not. In light of this, they encouraged the Special Rapporteur to come up with a clearer definition of what is an indigenous person than what has been provided by ILO Convention 169, which attempts to codify indigenousness.

After Mr. Stavenhagen’s closing comments, which were quite general, Mr. Luis Chavez, the Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on a draft United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, took the floor and presented the work of the last session of the Working Group (henceforth, WGDD). Although the WGDD was not able to adopt the Declaration as mandated by the Commission by the end of the 1st Decade on the World’s Indigenous Peoples, he wanted to point out a few things for the Commission to keep in mind as to why this had not been possible. Firstly, consensus was simply not possible in the short amount of time for the Draft elaborations. Secondly, there is a huge group of contentious articles that still need far more discussion in the WGDD which deal with self-determination and lands, territories and resources. But, there is another large group of articles that have indeed obtained consensus, and this group will be the starting point for the next meeting. Mr. Chavez pointed out to the Commission that he has created a Chairman’s Text that consolidates proposals from indigenous and government representatives that attempts to bridge the gaps between the disparate positions held within the WGDD, and he hopes that this text can help build further consensus and adoption in the future sessions. He solicited the extension of the WGDD mandate so that by the end of this year the WG will be able to finish and adopt a strong text. All of the seeds have been planted for an acceptable text for all, and this process must not be abandoned while the goal is so close in sight.

Ms. Erica-Irene Daes, the Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on indigenous peoples’ sovereignty over natural resources, presented her excellent final report on this very important topic to indigenous peoples of the world. She stated that this report is meant to be useful to States to facilitate the mediation of a number of problems faced by indigenous peoples over their ancestral lands, and hopefully to assist reconciliation between all parties. Mme. Daes traces the history of permanent sovereignty throughout the United Nations, and further notes its importance to the cultural survival of indigenous populations. The most important notes being that in 1962 there was a General Assembly resolution which opened the door for land rights and sovereignty over natural resources for peoples, which then lead the way to legislation in 1966 that included this into international law standards. Included within her final report is a Draft Decision for an expert UN Seminar on indigenous peoples and permanent sovereignty over natural resources. She also urged the UN to include this report as a part of the UN Studies series.

Mr. Jose Carlos Morales, Member of the Board of Trustees of the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations, presented the work of the VF in the last year. He went through the work of the VF, the assistance it has given for indigenous delegates in the last year, and encouraged governments to contribute to this very useful body in support of the indigenous peoples of the world. He also asked that the mandate of the VF be extended not only to participation in UN conferences, but also be able to offer programme assistance to indigenous peoples. The Board of Trustees hopes that the Draft Declaration will be adopted as soon as possible.

The floor was then given to Member States of the Commission for their statements. Australia made a Pre-Emptive Defense in which they went through all the fabulous leaps and bounds made in the promotion and protection of indigenous rights, and from the sounds of it, there shouldn’t be any more problems in Australia for aboriginal peoples. Yes, sounded a bit strange to me too.

The Nordic Countries made a very bland statement which avoided any issues in regards to indigenous populations in their country, but rather noted the importance of finalizing and adopting the Declaration. The encouraged governments and indigenous peoples to be more flexible, and that there will never be a Declaration if every group and government explicitly wants their concerns addressed within the text.

Ecuador protects all citizens from discrimination, and went into a detailed Pre-Emptive Defense where protection legislation was addressed, how indigenous participation in all aspects of society are guaranteed, and traditional indigenous cultures and systems are encouraged. Furthermore, collective rights are also guaranteed to indigenous peoples, and they have full access to sacred sites, lands, resources, etc. Ecuador is fully committed to the rights of indigenous peoples as well as the Draft Declaration, and thanked Mr. Chavez for his excellent work. The Second Decade on Indigenous Peoples will allow everyone to finish all pending work to further indigenous rights.

Mexico, on behalf of GRULAC, made a very general statement of support of indigenous populations, the WGDD, the 2nd Decade, Stavenhagen, etc. The delegate from Mexico stuttered a lot and at one point even lost his place in his text!

Peru agreed with the GRULAC statement and noted that it is of fundamental importance to them that they are a multicultural nation, fully embracing of all various segments of society. Indigenous peoples play a fundamental role in Peruvian society. They also support all of the mechanisms that protect indigenous peoples, and expressed their singular commitment to the WGDD (you will recall that Mr. Chavez is from Peru), and a Declaration that will recognize the collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as a text that is most closely related to the original Sub-Commission text. But, they would ask the WGDD to be extended for one year only.

Canada supports the extension of the WGDD until the work is completed, but noted that a strong declaration must be clear, transparent, and detailing rights and obligations that are implementable (Or the diplomatic way to say ‘take your desire for land rights and sovereignty over your natural resources and stick it where the sun don’t shine because this Declaration won’t have it…’). Although they would like to see the Sub-Commission text remain the basis for discussions, there have been significant advances in consensus with regards to government and indigenous proposals, and in the next session these should be the starting point. Among other things, they are hoping that the next session of the Commission will see the adoption of the Declaration.

Cuba went through the history of indigenous peoples at the UN since the 70’s and the whole process of the WGIP, the WGDD and PF. Mr. Martinez pointed out the horrendous state of the adoption of the text, and said that the WGDD will never finish with the terrible methods of work that they implement (or lack thereof).

(It was really hard for me to hear a lot of what was going on because so many people were talking around, and there was difficulty in obtaining hard copies of the documents…)

Russia made a Pre-Emptive Defense about all of their protection of indigenous populations, and something unintelligible (possibly unintelligent as well) about the WGDD. I know that their position is that if it is not adopted by the end of this year they will call to scrap the whole thing.

Germany gave a very bland statement during which he stuttered several times and encouraged the extension of the WGDD mandate until the document was adopted.

China noted all of the issues facing indigenous populations in terms of discrimination, denial of land rights, and how they are in need of special care as a particularly vulnerable group of global society. They support the protection of cultural diversity, justice and human rights for indigenous peoples. But all of this was said in support of indigenous populations because, even though China is a multi-ethnic society, they do not have indigenous peoples. (Yes. That is in fact what they said.)

The first Observer to take the floor was the World Health Organization who noted the horrific state of indigenous health throughout the world and gave examples (But stuttered a lot also!). Higher mortality, less life expectancy, diseases, environmental poisoning, and high suicide rates, and also pointed out that these problems are just as severe in industrialized nations as developing nations.

New Zealand reaffirmed their mantra that no changes to the Declaration means no Declaration at all. They claimed their amendments to the text were in line with international law standards. Realism must prevail in these discussions and in protecting the rights of one group, governments cannot discriminate against others. Territorial integrity of States, collective rights and third party rights are part of this problematic.

ILO wanted the Commission to know that the deliberations of the WGDD have proposed language that fall far below the minimum standards of human rights provided by international law, and any Declaration must have as basis at least minimum standards. A new international standard setting treaty such as this Declaration can not fall below these standards without damaging the entire human rights protection system.

UNESCO talked about education and the protection of indigenous cultural and sacred sites.

Venezuela supported the adopted of the Declaration, and stated that lands, territories and collective rights of indigenous peoples must be recognized.

NGOs were then given the floor to present their interventions, and the first was a joint statement from Indigenous World Association and others. They reminded the Commission of the Diplomatic Protest against the illegal occupation of the USA of Alaska and Hawaii. IWA withdrew its support of the suspension of the WGDD which had been proposed by IITC, as it seems a majority of indigenous groups would prefer the deliberations to continue. They would like clearer methods of work to be defined for the WGDD, especially on the issue of consensus and the basis of the work. They called upon States and indigenous peoples to put aside differences and adopt a strong text.

Amnesty International gave a joint statement also encouraging the timely adoption of the DD. They went through various human rights violations of indigenous human rights, and noted that many State objections to the DD could be resolved if they would review their obligations under international law.

World Peace Council gave a joint statement in which they denounced the discriminatory treatment of indigenous peoples by States within the WGDD. The WGDD has been failing because of a lack of political will. They support the ‘pause’ of the WGDD for a maximum of three years so that explicit working methods can be outlined as well as consensus on issues of lands, territories and collective rights.

International Commission of Jurists discussed the status of ILO 169 in Latin America and urged Chile to ratify this document as they are one of the few who have not.

Transnational Radical Party detailed violations of the Montangard peoples of Vietnam.

The Colombian Commission of Jurists noted the extreme violence against indigenous communities in Colombia and urged the government to end the genocide.

American association of Jurists criticized the lack of political will to protect and respect indigenous communities, and noted how globalization and liberalization of corporations has been damaging indigenous populations, land, natural resources, and intellectual property.

Jubilee Campaign spoke about indigenous groups in Iraq who are being targeted by Muslim fundamentalist insurgents who threaten the new democracy of the nation.

International Federation for the Protection of the Rights of Ethnic, Religious, Linguistic and other Minorities talked about human rights violations in Chile and how many Pinochet measures still remain and live. The Mapuche are at risk for violence by the government as well as dispossession of their lands.

Tebtebba Foundation promoted the extension of the WGDD until a strong Declaration was adopted. The fact that only 2 articles have been adopted in 10 years is not a measure of the progress that has been made and Chavez’s report demonstrates this. They support much of the Chairman’s Text as well as Canada’s resolution to extend the WGDD.

Latin American Federation of Associations of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees detailed the situation of indigenous peoples in Bolivia in light of the activities of transnational corporations moving into their territories.

International Association against Torture detailed the high level of violence against the Mapuche in Chile.

Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network stated that the WGDD should not be drawn out for the 2nd Decade, and that the Commission should allow one more session to adopt the Declaration.

International Indian Treaty Council supported the original text of the Sub-Commission and reminded the Commission that not a single proposal made by indigenous or government delegates has found consensus. In fact, proposals have been discriminatory, racist and lowered minimum standards of international law with regards to human rights. They support a ‘pause’ in the WGDD and 130+ organizations support this.

The Anti-Racism Information Service denounced the situation in Nigeria with regards to the Ogoni people.

Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development noted the horrendous situation for indigenous peoples in Burma, which includes militarization and a high level of violence.

Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches discussed the situation for the indigenous of Guatemala.

Consejo Indo de Sud America (CISA) discussed the drastic situation of the WGDD and urged adoption of a Declaration.

Association of World Citizens made a statement which I missed because I was so nervous about delivering Charmaine White Face’s Declaration in just a few moments.

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers talked about the Chagossian people, their colonization by the British as well as their current status as part of Mauritious.

Goddess Mililani spoke for the Netherlands Centre for Indigenous Peoples, and even though I adore her and usually hang on her every word and was sitting right next to her, I was the next speaker and thought I was going to have a heart attack, my heart was pounding so hard from nerves.

On behalf of Charmaine White Face, the Spokesperson for the Black Hills Teton Sioux Nation Treaty Council and with the support of VIDES International (International Volunteerism Organization for Women, Education and Development), I read Charmaine’s Declaration which urged the Commission to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as it is.

Indian Law Resource Centre spoke next, but I was still trying to breathe and so missed what they said.

Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action talked about new methods being needed for the WGDD as well as the importance of maintaining the Sub-Commission text as the basis. They called upon Australia to end discrimination against their indigenous populations.

Innu Council of Nitassinan talked about legislative reforms in Canada.

International Organization of Indigenous Resources Development (Willie Littlechild) also discussed the WGDD as well as recommendations for Mr. Stavenhagen’s future work.

Inuit Circumpolar Conference made a very moving joint statement in regards to the discriminatory and racist actions of States in their introduction of ‘odious’ language into the WGDD which diminishes rights of indigenous peoples and minimum standards of recognized international law. They vehemently maintain that any State that undermine the rights of indigenous peoples are not fit to serve on the Commission on Human Rights, and these include the USA, UK, Canada, Netherlands, France among others.

CISA giving a joint statement spoke in favor of the WGDD extension as well as Mme. Daes’ report. They renewed claims regarding Alaskan indigenous peoples as well as the case of Leonard Peltier.

The Assembly of First Nations stated that the WGDD could advance further if the Commission would take more of an advisory role in its work. They thanked the Special Rapporteur for his thorough work.

France Libertes Fondacion Danielle Mitterand spoke about the grave situation of human rights violations of the Mapuche in Chile.

Global Rights discussed violence against indigenous women and the multiple discriminations that they face. In Canada, there have been 500 missing indigenous women in the last 30 years, having to do with domestic violence, trafficking, and other extreme racial violence against them.

The Saami Council noted that 197 indigenous groups/organizations and 26 support organizations support the extension of the WGDD. They urge the Commission not to suspend the process as this could be detrimental to the adoption of the Declaration.

Incomindios talked about the situation of human rights violations in Mexico against indigenous populations.

American Indian Law Alliance discussed the state of treaties in Canada and noted their disappointment in Mr. Stavonhagen’s report which failed to mention key issues regarding indigenous health in Canada.

Liberation tabled the issue of Chagos Islands, British colonization and the denial of the Chagossian people to human rights.

Indigenous World Association also made a moving statement to close off Item 15. They thanked the Commission for maintaining the tradition of a fixed date for Item 15 so that indigenous peoples could participate. Mainly, they discussed the problematics of UN reform which is focusing more on reorganizing UN bodies rather than the real problem of government behaviours. Governments need to put aside their interest and truly commit to protecting human rights. Furthermore, if reforms are to be considered, then the UN should cease to be merely a governmental body, and should begin to include active and powerful participation of civil society. The UN should set standards for humankind. Ultimately, the UN does not need structural reforms; the UN can be reformed by adjusting the attitudes of governments.

Before closing, there was a Right of Reply from Chile, who (of course) refuted all statements made against them, and also Mauritius who said that Chagossians are full citizens of Mauritius and are an integral part of their society with full human rights, and furthermore are not indigenous.

With this Item 15 was closed.

An anthropological note which can be taken as you wish: the Chairperson has been Hitlerian in his maintenance of a tight schedule and making sure that meetings start exactly on time, if not even a few minutes early. The afternoon session of the Commission which was still on Item 15, began a grand total of 15 minutes late. This was the first time in this entire Commission where the session began late, and I am positive it was the last as well. I could be really conspiracy theoretical and say that this reflects Indonesia’s disregard, disrespect and disavowal of their own indigenous populations who were mainly in military-occupied Aceh, devastated by the tsunami much to the seeming joy of the Indonesian government. But that’s just my two beads worth, as they say. As always, take them or leave them.

In honour of Tony Black Feather,



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