Representatives from indigenous groups around the world converged on New York Monday for the sixth meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which will last until May 24. Over 1000 delegates from indigenous communities and organizations are attending sessions at the UN headquarters; they are focusing on the rights of indigenous peoples to lands, territories and natural resources.
The Permanent Forum was established in July 2000 by the UN Economic and Social Council, to which it reports. It consists of 16 independent experts appointed by the Council, half nominated by nongovernmental organizations and half by governments.
The major issue facing the meeting this year will be another attempt to persuade the UN General Assembly to approve a proposed UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration emphasizes their rights to self determination and to viable cultural, social, and political institutions of their own choosing. It proposes that indigenous peoples should have the right to participate in the processes of their states if they so choose, to develop their lives and societies in their own ways, and to live without discrimination. They should also have the rights to their own lands.
The declaration failed to pass the General Assembly last November due to pressures from a number of African governments, led by Namibia. It will be up for a second consideration by the General Assembly this year. Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, with support from the U.S., also opposed the draft last year because they viewed the text as “fundamentally flawed.” In a joint statement, the governments of those states argued that the self-determination provisions of the proposed Declaration might threaten the “territorial integrity” of member states of the U.N.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a Filipina who is Chair of the UN Permanent Forum said, “With the increasing desire of States for more economic growth, senseless exploitation of indigenous peoples’ territories and resources continues unabated.” Ms. Tauli-Corpuz was strongly opposed to the strategy of the governments of Canada, New Zealand, and some African countries to reopen the text of the proposed Declaration for further amendments. “We cannot have another 20 years to discuss the Declaration again,” she commented.
Many of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous peoples suffer from such threats as logging, mineral extraction, condemnation of their lands for parks or game preserves, development projects, and agricultural monoculture. Many of them also lack basic health care, human rights protections, and access to even an elementary education.
Indigenous rights, as a concept, is essential for many of the peaceful societies featured in this website. The G/wi, for instance, won their court case against the government of Botswana last fall, in part due to their argument that the government had violated their indigenous rights to their lands.
Nigel Crawhall, Director of the Secretariat of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee based in Cape Town, recently explained, “What is significant is that the government of Botswana denied there was such a concept as indigenous people in Africa and said everyone is indigenous so the concept is meaningless.” He added, “The Court—in line with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the UN Human Rights Council—said that is not the case: There are indigenous people in Africa and they do have rights that are specific to indigenous peoples.”
In a press release timed to coincide with the opening of the Permanent Forum meeting on Monday, Survival International announced that Botswana has denied access to that country for Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the special rapporteur on indigenous peoples for the United Nations. The government imposed similar restrictions on March 17 against four staff members of Survival International plus selected journalists and human rights advocates who have been reporting on the issue in that country.
Survival mentions the government’s argument that the restrictions are intended to provide individual assistance to the outsiders. It is obvious, however, that Botswana wants to ban indigenous rights advocates from monitoring the situation of the G/wi people. Survival’s director, Stephen Corry, said on Monday, “The Botswana government clearly thinks it has something to hide from the UN special rapporteur. And indeed it does—despite the Botswana High Court’s decisive ruling in the Bushmen’s favour, the government is still trying to stop them returning to their land.”