United Nations Mechanisms Handling Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Must Better Identify Strengths of Mandates to Increase Effectiveness, Speakers Say in Permanent Forum

The three main bodies charged with promoting indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide must better identify the strengths and limits of their respective mandates in order to work together more effectively, speakers in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said today, drawing attention to unresolved cases of human rights abuses, some of which had endured generations.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said more coordination with the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Forum itself would better protect indigenous peoples’ rights. Her work focused on country visits, responding to human rights violations, promoting good practices and carrying out thematic studies.

Updating on her mandate, she said she had visited Sapmi, Honduras and Brazil and would present her findings to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council later this year. She had presented her report on Paraguay in September, which referred to one Guarani community that had finally received title to community lands it had claimed for more than 26 years.

Her report on the situation of indigenous women and girls highlighted a “complex spectrum” of human rights abuses influenced by patriarchal power structures, she said, while another report, presented to the General Assembly in 2015, explored investments in mining and other infrastructure development. Going forward, she would publish a report on the impacts of conservation on indigenous peoples’ rights.

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz was part of an interactive dialogue in which Alexey Tsykarev, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, Chair of the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples; and Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur on the Field of Cultural Rights updated on their work and fielded questions on untangling overlap in their mandates.

Ms. Bennoune said her March report to the Human Rights Council reviewed the framework for cultural rights, with a thematic focus on the intentional destruction of cultural heritage. She planned to present further thoughts on that topic to the General Assembly this fall. She would support the Forum in integrating culture into related activities, asking participants to draw her attention to cases she should consider and provide thematic information that she could use in her reports.

Mr. Tsykarev said the Expert Mechanism had adopted two reports at its eighth session in July 2015: a study on the protection and promotion of the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, and an updated report on best practices and appropriate measures to obtain the goals of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Human Rights Council had requested studies on the mental health of indigenous youth, the right of indigenous women to sexual and reproductive health care, and on non-communicable diseases.

Mr. Pyagbara said that this year, 56 indigenous representatives had been selected to attend the Forum and other relevant meetings. In addition, the Fund’s Board had recommended that a budget be set aside to support the participation of another 38 indigenous representatives in the Human Rights Council, the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review and treaty bodies.

In the ensuing discussion, indigenous speakers issued impassioned pleas for recognition, promotion and protection, with a representative of Tonatierra describing his community’s painful experience losing 43 students “forcibly disappeared” by the Mexican Government in 2014. “We expect our children delivered back alive to our families in order to find peace,” he said, requesting the Special Rapporteur to visit and for the Mexican Government to allow such a trip.

A representative of Comite de Unidad Campesina said indigenous peoples were being portrayed as “enemies” by corporate lawyers. “They come and assassinate us”, he said, referring to the killing of Honduran indigenous rights activist Berta Caceres, a leader of the Lenca people.

A representative of the American Indian Law Alliance decried the redistribution of water from one region in Mexico to another that had better economic and technological capacity. “All we want is for the laws to be respected,” he said, requesting the Special Rapporteur to visit.

Edward John, Forum member from Canada, said the experience of his country’s residential schools amounted to genocide as the children who were forced to attend became the agents of destruction of indigenous culture. He supported the establishment of a mechanism for the repatriation of ceremonial objects.

To better tackle such cases, the United States delegate said that strengthening – and formalizing – the Expert Mechanism’s relationship with the Special Rapporteur would allow the latter to be more effective.

Joseph Goko Mutangah, Forum member from Kenya, agreed that the overlap of responsibilities must be “ironed out” so that it was clear who would take the lead in carrying out specific mandates.

Without more funding, others said, there was a risk that indigenous peoples’ participation in United Nations sessions would suffer.

The Permanent Forum will reconvene at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 17 May, to continue its fifteenth session.

Interactive Dialogue

This morning, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held an interactive dialogue featuring: Alexey Tsykarev, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, Chair of the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples; Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur on the Field of Cultural Rights; and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Mr. TSYKAREV, describing the Expert Mechanism’s work over the past year, said the body had held its eighth session in July 2015 with the participation of over 50 Member States and 150 indigenous representatives, civil society members, academics and other stakeholders. It had finalized and adopted two reports, including a study on the protection and promotion of the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and an updated report on best practices and appropriate measures to obtain the goals of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Outlining some of the advice included in the former, he said that, among other items, the study had recommended that States ensure that the benefits arising from the use of indigenous lands, territories and resources such as World Heritage Sites be provided to indigenous communities in a fair and transparent way. Noting that such recommendations had been presented to the Human Rights Council, he said the body had requested that the Expert Mechanism carry out a study on the rights of indigenous peoples, which would focus on the mental health of youth, the right of indigenous women to sexual and reproductive health care and on non-communicable diseases. He also discussed the Expert Mechanisms’ upcoming ninth session, slated to take place in Geneva in July.

Mr. PYAGBARA said the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples had celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2015. Since its inception, the Fund had supported the participation of some 2,000 indigenous men, women, youth, elders and persons with disabilities from around the world. Noting that its scope and mandate had expanded over the years, he said that so far in 2016, 56 indigenous representatives had been selected to attend the Permanent Forum and other relevant meetings. In addition, the Fund’s Board had recommended that a budget be set aside to support the participation of another 38 representatives of indigenous communities and organizations in sessions of the Human Rights Council, the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review and treaty bodies that would take place from July 2016 to March 2017. In 2016, the Fund had also supported participation in two extraordinary meetings related to the outcome document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. He expressed concern that without predictable, sustainable and adequate funding, the Board would face difficulties in carrying out its ever-expanding mandate. After assessing the present financial needs of the Fund and in view of the two additional expansions of its mandate, the Board recommended a target of $780,000 for the biennium 2016-2017.

Ms. BENNOUNE, providing an overview of her first report to the Human Rights Council, presented in March, said it reviewed the framework for cultural rights, with a thematic focus on the intentional destruction of cultural heritage. She planned to present further thoughts on that topic to the General Assembly in the fall and welcomed any input before July. Cultural rights were an integral part of human rights, which were universal, interrelated and interdependent, she said, highlighting the importance of individual cultural rights and the collective exercise of them, as stressed in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She had made clear in her report that it was critical that cultural rights be upheld in conflict contexts without discrimination. She was also concerned about the destruction of intangible cultural rights – such as the teaching of indigenous languages – as well as the preservation of natural cultural heritage.

The intentional destruction of cultural heritage was a violation of human rights, she said. Her report found that culture was inherently important, as well as in relation to its human dimension. Cultural rights were a fundamental resource to other rights, such as the freedom of expression, conscience, religion and development. At the Human Rights Council, a cross-regional statement by Cyprus was endorsed by unprecedented coalition of 145 States, welcoming plans to prioritize the topic as a human rights issue. She would work with indigenous peoples to ensure that issue included their views. Going forward, she would support the Forum in integrating culture into related activities. She asked participants to draw her attention to cases she should consider and provide thematic information for use in her reports. She would stress the importance of indigenous cultural heritage and highlight its intentional destruction as it related to indigenous peoples.

Ms. TAULI-CORPUZ, presenting her second report, said she had made three official visits to Sapmi, Honduras and Brazil, the reports of which would be presented to the Human Rights Council this year. She also had presented her country report on Paraguay to the Council in September, noting that one Guarani community had received title to the community lands it had been claiming for more than 26 years. During her trip to Honduras, indigenous peoples had expressed concern about a hydroelectric dam approved through national legislation on which they had not been consulted. Members of the Lenca communities who opposed the dam had reported cases of killings, threats and intimidation, including the assassination of Berta Caceres in March.

Her visit to Brazil in March coincided with the heightened political crisis, she said, commending Brazil for better ensuring indigenous rights. However, she noted the absence of progress in resolving long-standing issues, noting that there had been “worrying” regressions in the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights, including proposals for constitutional amendments and laws undermining their rights to lands, the stalling of demarcation processes and mega projects on or near indigenous properties.

During her visit to Sapmi, she had heard concerns about the scope and content of the State duty to consult the Sami people and obtain their consent for natural resource projects based on their natural territories. Turning to her report on the situation of indigenous women and girls, she said indigenous women had experienced a “complex spectrum” of human rights abuses influenced by patriarchal power structures and discrimination, and based on gender, class, socioeconomic circumstances and violations to the right to self-determination. In indigenous communities with matriarchal practices, the loss of lands undermined women’s status and roles, including their livelihoods, while compensation following land seizure tended to benefit men. Another report, presented to the Assembly in 2015, explored investments in mining and other infrastructure development. Going forward, she would publish a report on conservation and its impacts on indigenous peoples’ rights.

In the ensuing discussion, a number of representatives of indigenous groups issued impassioned pleas for the recognition, promotion and protection of their rights. Several Government delegates shared steps being undertaken at the national level to promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

In that vein, the representative of Mexico said that her country was working to guarantee the right of indigenous peoples to justice by providing interpreters and translators fluent in indigenous languages. In the area of gender equality, the Government had provided guidance to some 40,000 indigenous women on sexual and reproductive health and the prevention of gender-related violence.

Some representatives also asked specific questions to the panellists. In that regard, the representative of Finland, speaking on behalf of the Nordic and Baltic States, asked what the most pressing obstacles were to achieving the full empowerment and enjoyment of rights of indigenous women. He asked Mr. Tsykarev how the mandate of the Expert Mechanism could be improved, and what the main areas of concern were in the area of indigenous peoples’ right to health.

DALEE SAMBO DOROUGH, Forum member from the United States, warned that, while violence against indigenous women was a crucial matter requiring urgent attention, some States were using the issue to deflect attention away from the root causes of violence – efforts of indigenous women to defend their rights to their land, territories and resources.

Addressing Ms. Bennoune, she drew attention to the International Law Association’s recent finding that cultural rights were part of customary international law, which triggered important responsibilities on the part of States. Noting the trend of increased violence against indigenous peoples defending their rights, she proposed the creation of a United Nations declaration on the rights of human rights defenders.

WILTON LITTLECHILD, Chairperson of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had heard many cases of the destruction of cultural heritage. However, some steps forward had been seen. In that regard, he recalled that the four Maskwacis Cree First Nations had recently adopted a declaration proclaiming their official language to be Cree.

A representative of the organization Tonatierra described his community’s painful experience losing 43 students who had been forcibly disappeared by the Mexican Government in 2014. In reality, tens of thousands of people had been disappeared, he said, asking for support and solidarity from the international community. Noting that those children were known to be alive, he stressed: “we expect our children delivered back alive to our families in order to find peace.”

The Government of Mexico was untrustworthy, he said, calling for the creation of a mechanism to monitor the implementation of recommendations made by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts and to ensure that the Government returned the lost children. Finally, he requested Ms. Tauli-Corpuz to visit Ayotzinapa and for the Mexican Government to allow such a visit.

A representative of the Youth Caucus spoke about operational paragraph 15 of the Declaration, suggesting that joint actions of the three indigenous peoples’ mechanisms include a study, a joint side event during the Forum’s sixteenth session and a dialogue on the findings of those activities. He asked others in the room, especially indigenous groups, how they had “given life” to that paragraph.

MARA�A EUGENIA CHOQUE QUISPE, Forum member from Bolivia, urged coordination among the three mechanisms, stressing that cultural rights included spiritual rights, a point not raised in the report. Violence against indigenous women and girls was especially important, as it reinforced their poverty and institutionalized discrimination. “These issues must be brought up more often,” she said. She urged more focus on the 43 students who had disappeared.

The representative of Costa Rica spoke about constitutional reforms that laid out a pluri-ethnic policy that aimed to build an inclusive, diverse population. Indigenous peoples continued to face challenges and the Government was working to better fulfil its obligations in that context.

A representative of the American Indian Law Alliance, noting that he represented an ancestral people from Mexico, decried the redistribution of water from one region to another that had better economic and technological capacity. “We want free, prior and informed consent,” he said, citing non-compliance with a judicial order for such. An aqueduct near the Yaki River had been cancelled without such consent. “All we want is for the laws to be respected,” he said, requesting the Special Rapporteur to visit.

JOSEPH GOKO MUTANGAH, Forum member from Kenya, said there were overlaps among the duties of the three mechanisms, which must be harmonized so it was clear who took the lead in implementing the same mandate. Cultural heritage, especially in Africa, was at risk of disappearing, in part due to environmental degradation. Cultural heritage sites were “living libraries” that required preservation.

A representative of Comite de Unidad Campesina, focusing on repression in Latin America, said indigenous peoples were being portrayed as “enemies” by lawyers for electric and other companies. “They come and assassinate us”, he said, referring to Berta Caceres in Honduras. In Guatemala, the State was involved in repression. He urged Guatemala to comply with resolutions issued by the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, which had suspended the hydroelectric and other projects.

The representative of the United States said no one person with limited resources could fully address the mandate. By strengthening – and formalizing – the Expert Mechanism’s relationship with the Special Rapporteur, he hoped that the latter would be more effective. In considering what functions should be carried out by which Office, “we need to remain realistic about what each entity can reasonably accomplish”.

The representative of the Finnish Sami Youth Organization spoke about the indifference of the Finnish State, stressing that “youth are forced to choose between being young and being Sami”, protecting themselves from hate speech, among other things. By ignoring such behaviour, Finland had increased mistrust. Noting the costs of forced assimilation on future generations, she invited the Special Rapporteur to visit.

A representative of the indigenous organization Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA) raised the issue of how indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination was being supported by Member States. In Australia, for example, the Government claimed to be implementing the Declaration, but it refused to use the terms “self-determination” or “free, prior and informed consent”. It also refused to support the right of indigenous people to have their own national representative body.

The representative of Australia said her country would continue to support the work of the three mechanisms, and asked the experts how their work could be best utilized by Member States.

EDWARD JOHN, Forum member from Canada, said the experience of his country’s residential schools amounted to genocide as the children that were forced to attend them became the agents of the destruction of indigenous culture. Today, States should take proactive steps to assist indigenous youth to reconnect with their cultures. He supported the establishment of a mechanism for the repatriation of ceremonial objects, or “cultural treasures”.

A representative of the indigenous organization Aty Guasu said leaders of the Guarani people in Brazil were being threatened and suffered from intimidation by police. Noting that the Guarani had been expelled from much of their territory, he issued an urgent appeal to the Brazilian authorities for a definite demarcation of his people’s land. Requesting a study by the Special Representative on the situation faced by the Guarani, he also requested the Forum to help end the ethnocide that was being committed against his people.

An indigenous representative from Botswana said the indigenous San people were suffering as a result of the Government’s policy not to recognize them as a distinct group. Calling for a “second phase of independence” in Africa which would recognize indigenous cultures and languages, he said the findings of a report of the Special Rapporteur on Botswana had yet to be implemented.

An indigenous representative from the Russian Federation said the indigenous Sakha people faced challenges from transnational corporations, which cared only about profit and which were infringing upon indigenous territory. Those companies must work within the framework of the rights of indigenous peoples, she stressed, calling on the Government of the Russian Federation to ratify the Declaration and prevent the transfer of indigenous lands to transnational companies.

A representative of the indigenous organization Regional Indian Council of Cauca (CRIC) recalled that Colombia was in the process of ending the armed conflict that had lasted more than 50 years. Urging the Government to ensure the effective participation of indigenous people, she cited systematic violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights, in particular related to the mining industry, and the emergence of paramilitarism.

Mr. TSYKAREV, in closing remarks, urged a focus on country cases, as well as enhanced dialogue among States, businesses and indigenous peoples. “We need more financial support,” notably from the Secretariat, he said, agreeing that his office’s mandate must be reviewed along with those of the other two mechanisms.

Mr. PYAGBARA expressed solidarity with the families of the 43 missing students. The Fund needed support, especially from States, without which indigenous peoples’ participation in United Nations meetings could not be enhanced.

Ms. BENNOUNE said she was eager to receive further documentation about cases mentioned today, expressing outrage that the destruction of indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage had not adequately been considered. She emphasized the connection between peoples and their heritage.

Ms. TAULI-CORPUZ said the violation of rights to lands, territories and resources, as well as entrenched discrimination, exacerbated the situation of indigenous women. Investment agreements favoured investor rights, eclipsing human rights, which did not have enforcement mechanisms. Indigenous peoples must participate in such agreements, which currently were being negotiated in secret.

The 9th Meeting was closed.

Source: United Nations