Apparently worried that indigenous people are three times more likely to live in extreme poverty, United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, is currently urging them to prioritize inclusion and sustainable development.
The UN chief who was speaking at the opening session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Forum on Indigenous Issues, said they represent the greater part of the world’s cultural diversity and speak the major share of its languages.
In April 2018, traditional knowledge was at the core of indigenous identity, culture and heritage around the world. Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said at the annual event’s opening day that year, stressing that it “must be protected”.
Anne Nuorgam, who is a member of Finland’s Saami Parliament and head of the Saami Council’s Human Rights Unit, described the Forum as an opportunity to share innovations and practices, developed in indigenous communities “over centuries and millennia”.
Indigenous peoples make up less than six per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest on earth, according to the Forum. They live in some 90 countries, represent 5,000 different cultures and speak the overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages.
Since 2019 was the International Year of Indigenous Languages, she said “we have to celebrate our languages, but also take concrete action to preserve them and save those on the verge of extinction”.
Ms. Nuorgam pointed out that in many countries, indigenous children are not taught in their language. Citing Article 14 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) , she recalled that indigenous peoples have the right to provide education in their own languages.
“However, this needs financial and technical support from Member States and the UN System”, she stated.
As studies show that children learn best in their own mother tongue, Ms. Nuorgam encouraged everyone to “make sure our children” are connected to their indigenous communities and cultures, as they are “inextricably linked to their lands, territories and natural resources”.
“This enables us to protect our traditional knowledge”, asserted the chair.
Recognising UNDRIP as a “watershed moment” in 2007, General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa lamented that it still faced implementation challenges, saying that the world has a “historic debt with the indigenous peoples” and that much more must be done to overcome the implementation gap.
She also drew attention to indigenous women, pointing out that while women are key agents of change for tackling poverty and hunger, they face multiple forms of discrimination and violence.
In his opening remarks, Valentin Rybakov, Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), explained that the Forum’s expert advice on indigenous peoples’ issues, informs ECOSOC deliberations and decisions.
Rybakov mentioned key activities in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including, in September, the first SDG Summit for State heads since the 2030 Agenda was adopted and the UN High-level Political Forum (HLPF) in July to review six of the SDGs, including on quality education, economic growth and combatting climate change.
“These topics are of central importance to indigenous peoples and the attainment of their human rights”, he said, saying that the Permanent Forum and its follow-up activities “demonstrably contributes” to reaching these goals.
“Along with recognition comes the need to acknowledge the source, ownership and protection of traditional knowledge”, Rybakov said.
Thriving for ‘millennia’
Executive Secretary of the Convention on biological Diversity, Cristiana Pasca Palma, credited her Romanian grandparents – who used traditional agricultural methods passed down for centuries, to till the soil – for nurturing her appreciation of biodiversity and related traditional knowledge.
“All of our ancestors have always lived off the land and waters in one form or another”, she said. “And their traditional knowledge, often transmitted especially through women – grandmother to mother, to daughter – have enabled us as a species to thrive for millennia”.
The event also enjoyed a performance by Sjisäwishék, or ‘Keeping the fire strong’ – indigenous girls of the Onondaga Nation, Haudenoasuanee Confederacy, and a ceremonial welcome by the traditional Chief of the Onondaga Nation, Tadodaho Sid Hill.
The session ran from April 22 through May 3, with regional dialogues to be held during the second week.
Established by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2000, the Forum provides it with advice and recommendation on indigenous issues. The 16 independent experts of the Forum – eight nominated by UN Member States and others by indigenous organizations globally – work in their personal capacity.
However, as their languages and cultures remain under constant threat, indigenous peoples have taken a major blow from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moreover, their lack of participation in decision-making has often meant their specific needs are overlooked or ignored.
“As we work to recover from the pandemic, we must prioritize inclusion and sustainable development that protects and benefits all people”, said the top UN official.
Exploited and attacked
Indigenous peoples’ lands are among the world’s most biodiverse and resource-rich, which has led to increased exploitation, conflicts over resources and land misuse, the UN chief said.
“Violence and attacks against indigenous leaders and women and men working to defend indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources have grown dramatically”, he added.
Mr Guterres urged everyone to “do better” at fostering inclusive, participatory laws and policies with strong and accountable institutions that provide justice for all; and to “promote and uphold” the right to health for people and the environment.
“We must implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”, he stressed, adding that they are “indispensable to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and their voices need to be heard”.
The Secretary-General reminded of the need to ensure “equal and meaningful participation, full inclusion and empowerment” towards the realization of human rights and opportunities for all indigenous peoples.
General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir, underscored that in preparing for the next pandemic, “we must engage indigenous communities who are at a higher risk for emerging infectious diseases as a result of the destruction of ecosystems from extractive industries and climate change”, he said.
And as indigenous peoples are the stewards of more than 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, they must be included in addressing the climate crisis, said Mr. Bozkir.
“Decision makers should reflect the population who is governed by the decisions made”, he said. “This is the only approach that will end stigmatization, discrimination, and cultural threats, and improve access to vital services such as education, healthcare, and justice”.
Highlighting the “intrinsic link between language and identity”, the Assembly President encouraged everyone to use the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which kicks off next year, to promote it widely.
“Our strength lies in our diversity. If we fail to realize this, we will not only fail indigenous communities, but everyone, everywhere”, said the UN official.
Violations of human rights law ‘must stop’
Forum Chair Anne Nuorgam said that violence against indigenous peoples, as well as indigenous human rights defenders, is a “major concern”.
She stated that of the at least 331 human rights defenders were killed in 2020; two-thirds were working on environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights.
And in the case of murdered indigenous women, “the overwhelming majority of these crimes” go unpunished.
Ms. Nuorgam asserted that these atrocities “do not happen in vacuums”.
“As governments increasingly criminalize the activities of indigenous people’s organizations and use anti-terrorism legislation to damage and demise their human rights activism, we see a sharp rise in violence against indigenous human rights defenders”, she attested.
“This must stop”, she said, headlining them as clear violations of internationally-recognized human rights law that “make our societies less stable, less secure and less equal”.