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UN, Indigenous Organizations Prepare for World Conference

Native peoples' issues will define the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in September, but critics say Native nations won't have enough of a say in the historic, high-level meeting.

Alyssa Macy (Wasco/Navajo/Hopi) is a representative of the Global Indigenous Women's Caucus and a spokeswoman for the Global Coordinating Group for the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

Alyssa Macy (Wasco/Navajo/Hopi) is a representative of the Global Indigenous Women's Caucus and a spokeswoman for the Global Coordinating Group for the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

Courtesy of the Global Coordinating Group

The United Nations’ first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is set to begin September 22 in New York, where state representatives will discuss poverty, violence against women, access to justice and other top issues that have emerged in indigenous communities worldwide.

The two-day conference will mark a historic, high-level meeting at the UN among world leaders that supporters say shows progress in the push for indigenous rights—especially because indigenous groups have struggled for the right to retain their unique culture, language and traditions while being treated equally by the countries in which they reside.

But as the meeting fast approaches, not everyone is endorsing it, and not every organization engaged in indigenous issues will attend. Because only state leaders will be involved in drafting a final document on the rights of Native people, indigenous groups protesting the conference believe that sovereign Native nations will not have enough of a say in setting the agenda. 

“You’d think a world conference on indigenous people would be run by indigenous people,” says Arthur Manuel, a member of the North American Indigenous People’s Caucus.  The group, which represents Native populations in the United States and Canada, formally dropped out of the conference in March.

Photos courtesy of the Global Coordinating Group for the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

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“A real world conference has several, UN-sponsored preparatory meetings and is usually two weeks long,” says Debra Harry, the NAIPC co-chair. 

The UN adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, over three decades after a UN committee—the Working Group on Indigenous Populations—began drafting the document. Though the document acknowledges basic rights for Native populations, it is not legally binding or enforceable. In 2010, the Bolivian government called for a high-level plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to continue the discussion of indigenous rights.

Though the conference will culminate in an “outcome document” outlining important issues, a preliminary document was passed by the UN in July, and is a “starting point of negotiations” that will go through revisions before the September conference.

The preliminary document calls for several issues to be addressed at the conference including improving the place of indigenous-knowledge in health and education efforts, and reducing violence against children – as well as highlighting global women’s issues.

Globally, indigenous women are working at a grassroots level to help change policy.

For example, indigenous Filipino women, part of the Lumad tribes in Mindanao, are working to add a clause to existing law that protects women who are victims of sexual violence. Cultural norms in the tribal regions prevent women from reporting these crimes when they happen.

Others say that policies outlining indigenous rights have been in the works for years and that the outcome of the conference will not be an overhaul of what’s been discussed in past years.

“The real work is happening now and has been happening,” says Alyssa Macy, communications director for the Global Coordinating Group for the WCIP. “People have spent their entire careers working on this.”

The Global Coordinating Group “is primarily responsible for advocating for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in the preparatory processes leading up to, during and after the World Conference as well as raising funds to ensure that the indigenous preparatory process is realized.”

“Our primary concern is that this is a purely state-controlled process.  Indigenous participation is relegated solely to the informal processes"

Harry says that the participation of indigenous groups has been limited to informal input during the early stages of drafting an outcome document—which will detail the rights of an estimated 379 million indigenous people globally and how they’ll be put into practice—but that the states will ultimately write the final draft in August.

“One of the key objections is that we have the right to be fully involved. This process does not respect that right,” says Harry. “As a state-only process, I would have grave concerns about what the outcome will be.”

In addition, nine other indigenous nations and organizations—including the Oglala Lakota Nation and the Indigenous Law Institute—have called for the cancellation of the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples, saying they object to the lack of full participation by indigenous people.

“Our primary concern is that this is a purely state-controlled process.  Indigenous participation is relegated solely to the informal processes,” both the Oglala Lakota and the Indigenous Law Institute said in a joint statement. “We know that the ultimate interest of states is to protect state interests. To assume at any level that states will protect the long-term interests of Indigenous Peoples and Nations is contrary to historical record.”

Though Macy agrees that indigenous people are not being provided with “full and equal access,” she stresses that important gains have been made over the years. She points to the 2007 Declaration and the 2013 Global Indigenous Preparatory Conference held in Norway held ahead of the upcoming conference in New York, in which feedback was solicited from 600 indigenous delegates, peoples and observers.

Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Office of Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, says that due to time and space constraints, the Navajo Nation may not attend the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, but hopes that a significant, concrete plan will be put into place at its conclusion.

“Based on the tone of discussions, nation-states are looking toward that direction but it requires a lot of work,” says Gorman.