The third day of our Study Tour started with a lecture by Ms. Hui Lu who introduced us to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She then took a retrospective look at the long “story of success” between the United Nations and the Indigenous Peoples. She noted that the Indigenous Peoples first sought political participation back in 1924 at the League of Nations.
Our speaker told us that there is no distinctive definition of indigenous peoples. However a common understanding exists, which is drawn from mainly two sources. The first, often-cited description of indigenous people is derived from the study by the United Nations Special Rapporteur J. Martínez Cobo (1984) that defines indigenous peoples as
“those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.”
The second source, the “working definition” of the United Nations, comes from the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO No. 169) which had not yet entered into force. It emphasizes that indigenous peoples’ social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from more dominant sections of society. That leads directly to their undeniable right of self-determination.
Ms. Lu explained that the Permanent Forum was created by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2000 to raise awareness about indigenous issues and to provide expert advice to the system of the United Nations – especially concerning economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights of indigenous peoples. Since 2002, the forum gathers annually for two weeks in May. The first session was dedicated to the topic “Indigenous Children”, the second focused on “Indigenous Women” whereas the third session in 2005 basically dealt with the issue of “Millennium Development Goals”. The committee consists of 16 members who are elected for a term of three years, eight nominated by Governments and eight recommended by indigenous peoples. Ms. Lu emphasized that there is no difference between members sent by Governments and members sent by indigenous peoples. They are all experts and they decide on each topic by consensus.
Our speaker underlined the structure of the Forum since it enables indigenous people to present their views as full-fledged members of a United Nations body. Therefore it is groundbreaking and carries the potential of setting new international standards. However, throughout the world, the indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Ms. Lu mentioned that indigenous peoples represent more than five percent of the world population, but fifteen percent of the world’s poor. She continued to list further facts that describe the discrimination of indigenous peoples: they are often excluded from decision-making processes, their cultures are suppressed and their identities denied. Since an appropriate educational system hardly exists, indigenous students frequently drop out of schools. Furthermore, they are deprived of their ancestral lands because of mining and industry, dam and road projects and their cultural knowledge is often subject to commercial piracy. Ms. Lu posed the question: how should State and non-state actors recognize the indigenous peoples’ right of self-determination and include them in decision-making processes concerning them if those processes of integration might cause a redistribution of political and economic power?
Ms. Lu pointed out that there are an estimated 300 to 500 million indigenous people in more than 70 countries around the world, representing over 5,000 languages and cultures on every continent. They live in a closely dependent relationship to their environment and often state that they have guardianship of the earth which they consider their terrestrial mother, the giver of all life. Therefore indigenous communities may serve as stewards of sustainable development and pay a significant contribution to nation-building processes especially in foremost colonized regions.
In terms of 40 years of partnership between the system of the United Nations and indigenous peoples, Ms. Lu spoke about a “story of success”. She stressed that decisive steps on the long road to self-determination have already been made. Still, much remains to be done. For example the Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been negotiating the Draft for almost ten years whereas only two out of 45 articles have been agreed upon. Nevertheless, Ms. Lu expressed her hope in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and in new networks built out of civil society, Non-Governmental Organizations and United Nations bodies that might find a more effective way to lobby Governments and to bring indigenous points of views to the world’s attention.