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A World Conference on Indigenous Peoples With No Indigenous?

As the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples approaches, indigenous activists have said they will not attend without an indigenous representative.

With no assurance from the United Nations General Assembly’s top official that Indigenous Peoples will participate on a full and equal basis with states at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, indigenous activists are saying they will not participate in the conference and that it should be delayed or cancelled altogether.

A delegation of indigenous representatives met with the President of the General Assembly (PGA) John Ashe at U.N. headquarters in New York on January 28 to try to persuade him to re-appoint an indigenous co-facilitator to participate on an equal basis with a state co-facilitator in organizing and facilitating the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) that is scheduled to take place at the U.N. in September. John Henriksen, Sami, and the international representative of the Sami Parliament of Norway, was appointed co-facilitator along with a state representative by a different PGA in 2011, but Ashe has declined to re-appoint him. Henriksen is widely supported by the indigenous activists involved in the U.N. process. On January 15, indigenous representatives from more than a dozen countries around the world wrote urging Ashe to re-appoint Henriksen.

The delegation included Kenneth Deer, Mohawk, representing the Oneida Nation Council of Chiefs, Roberto Borrero, Taino, from the International Indian Treaty Council, Rosalee Gonzalez representing the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas, Quapaw Tribe Chairman John Berrey representing the National Congress of American Indians, and Quapaw legal consultant Allen Mauk.

“My position and the position of the chiefs that I represent – the Oneida Nation Council of Chiefs and others -- is no indigenous co-facilitator, no conference. And all of us at the meeting were in agreement about no facilitator, no conference,” Deer told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Unless we have representation the conference should not go forward. A process should be re-done to delay or cancel the conference.”

The delegation met with Ashe and five of his top advisers, most of whom were ambassadors. “So that was significant,” Deer said. “He said we were the first Indigenous Peoples he’s met and he was waiting for this meeting.”

Regardless of his eagerness to meet Indigenous Peoples for the first time, Ashe was not swayed into appointing an indigenous co-facilitator on an equal footing with a state representative for the conference.

“The PGA is not in favor of an indigenous co-facilitator. He said he’s stuck between two opposing groups of governments – one group of states that support an indigenous facilitator and another group that is adamantly against it. He’s responsible to those 193 member states and to no one else,” Deer said. And the decision is his alone to make.

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The opposing states are Russia, China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia who argue that the conference should be run by U.N. state members, particularly for a world conference at a high level meeting of the General Assembly. “They view this as an incursion of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) into the U.N. We argued that the chiefs and chairmen are heads of governments of indigenous nations,” Deer said. “We tried to convince him that it’s important that we be treated as equals and that’s the position of Indigenous Peoples around the world and that we can’t accept anything less than equality. He said he has no horse in this race and that he considers himself neutral and stuck between these two opposing parties.” It was not clear why, if Ashe is neutral, he has chosen to support the opponents of an indigenous co-facilitator.

The indigenous activists’ biggest concern is that states that are hostile to indigenous human rights will use the conference to undermine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the “outcome document” – the political statement that will become a U.N. General Assembly resolution, Deer said.

On January 29, Ashe made three new proposals: 1. that he appoints two state co-facilitators and one Indigenous advisor; 2. that he appoints two state facilitators and one indigenous co-facilitator, and 3. that he, as the PGA, be responsible for the outcome document with the assistance of States and Indigenous representatives. None of the proposals met the need for full and equal participation by an indigenous representative, said Glenn Morris, a member of the Leadership Council, American Indian Movement of Colorado and director of the Fourth World Center for the Study of Indigenous Law and Politics. Of Ashe’s three options. “No. 1 was already dismissed as unacceptable per the Alta outcome document [that was adopted last June at a conference in Alta, Norway]; No. 2 is untenable because the PGA has now stated repeatedly that he has no intention of implementing that; and, No. 3 is not acceptable because, even if the PGA were to adopt it, it also violates the tenets of the Alta outcome document, and even if it didn't, it is so remote as to be a waste to spend much of our time to consider, seriously.”

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The General Assembly passed a resolution in December 2010 to organize the WCIP in December 2010 in order “to share perspectives and best practices on the realization of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and to pursue the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

In a clear case of irony deficiency, by refusing to appoint an indigenous co-facilitator the PGA violates Article 18 of the Declaration, which says “Indigenous Peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”

The best thing would be for the PGA to a realize that in order for the conference to be viewed as legitimate by Indigenous Peoples it needs to begin by implementing Article 18 of the Declaration, according to Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council.

“We know there is a lot of pressure on him by a few states that want to make sure that the outcome document from the WCIP is controlled by states without our real and effective participation. We could not accept that during the development of the U.N. Declaration and we certainly can’t accept it now that the Declaration has been adopted and we are planning a conference focused on implementation,” Carmen said. “If the PGA continues to hold out for an unequal formula for our participation in this case, I imagine that many Indigenous Peoples will take the position that IITC has stated, that it will not be possible for us to participate. Many may agree that the best case scenario would be to call it off. We are still working for a correct decision by the PGA and I think we will know either way very soon. Then will be the time for deciding next steps.”