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RIGHTS: Indigenous Groups Have Mixed Feelings Abour New Forum

By Mithre J. Sandrasagra

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 10 (IPS) - Members of indigenous groups have welcomed plans to create a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues within the United Nations, but many remain sceptical that the body will actually come to fruition or will serve the needs of native populations as expressed by these peoples themselves.
''If the UN wants to have constructive dialogue on issues, they need to have indigenous people represented,'' Alberto Saldamando, General Council of the International Indian Treaty Council told IPS.

'' Authentic indigenous voices in UN deliberations concerning our problems will initially be the greatest benefit of the Forum,'' Saldamando added.

On Wednesday, the United Nations commemorated the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed the new forum as one of the greatest achievements in the fight for indigenous rights.

''Intended as a forum for dialogue, reconciliation and co- operation in all areas of concern to indigenous peoples, (the) Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues'' is to be in place by 2002 and will be the first high-level representation of these groups in the United Nations, Annan said.

The creation of the Permanent Forum was formally announced last week even though it was established by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) last month.

The Forum will be a subsidiary body of ECOSOC and will consist of 16 representatives - eight to be nominated by governments and elected by ECOSOC, and eight to be appointed by the President of ECOSOC following ''broad consultations with indigenous organisations and groups,'' according to the United Nations.

Although indigenous groups welcomed the forum as a ''step forward,'' they have a host of concerns about it, including uncertainty that the new body will even be set up.

There is fear that the United States or another opponent of the group (perhaps India or China who insist they have no indigenous people within their borders) might still strike down the Forum later in the process based on a lack of funding.

US and Canadian representatives suggested that the issue of a lack of funding would be raised at the UN's Administrative and Budgetary Committee meeting later this year, and that the shortage could be grounds for terminating the permanent forum, says Victoria Tauli-Corpuz of the Asian Indigenous Women's Network.

According to Tauli-Corpuz, the United States has indicated to her that ''it may withhold 25 percent of funds it has committed to the UN budget because it opposes greater representation in the UN for indigenous groups.''

The United States has refused comment on Tauli-Corpuz's statement.

There is also concern among indigenous groups that the United Nations may propose not to allocate any new funds to the Forum and establish it at the expense of the clearly cash strapped Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

''One area of concern to indigenous peoples is the consensus requirement for any recommendations issuing from the Forum, which they feel could prevent any meaningful results from being heard by the General Assembly,'' Saldamando emphasised.

Additionally, indigenous groups say they are worried that the appointment of representatives to the Forum and choice of Forum Secretariat staff may not sufficiently involve them.

Groups note too that as it is envisaged by ECOSOC, the permanent forum falls well short of hopes spawned at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna, Austria.

They say they are also bothered by the reluctance of certain UN member states to allow the use of the word 'peoples' in describing indigenous groups - ''apparently out of fear it will give additional legal sovereignty to our people,'' Saldamando told IPS - emphasising that the International Indian Treaty Council had been attempting to facilitate the word's inclusion for the past 20 years.

Erica Irene Daes, former chair of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations said words such as 'populations' and 'people' used to describe indigenous peoples were an, ''absurd use of language.''

Saldamando told reporters Wednesday that, ''we are no longer people or populations we are now simply issues'' - referring to the forum being on indigenous 'issues'.

''The North, particularly the United States and many Western European states are really voting their fears,'' Saldamando said, ''The US has recognised more than 500 tribes - we don't know what the problem is.''

Indigenous groups have been campaigning for a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, asserting their right to land and self-determination. However, as Saldamando says ''indigenous peoples have enjoyed the willingness of the UN, but often not that of the member states to implement the recommendations of the UN experts.''

Indigenous groups say that Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States have strongly opposed their efforts.

Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, calls the creation of the forum a ''historic step forward.''

''The Forum promises to give indigenous peoples a unique voice within the UN system, commensurate with the unique problems which many indigenous peoples still face, but also with the unique contribution they make to the human rights dialogue, at the local, national and international levels,'' she added.

The world's 300 million indigenous peoples live in more than 70 countries on five continents. In 1994, the United Nations declared an International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1995- 2004). (END/IPS/HD/mjs/da/00)

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