UNITED NATONS - The U.S. took its share of bashing at the recent UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, but the State Department is giving official, if modest, support to the fledgling body and calling on Indian tribal governments to be more active in it.
The second annual meeting of the world's newest global organization ended May 23. Finally established last year as part of the UN's Economic and Social Council after decades of activist lobbying, it brought together some 1,700 representatives of more than 500 tribal bodies, coalitions and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) speaking for the world's oldest peoples.
Natives from around the world used the two-week meeting to publicize grievances with a number of national governments. For once, perhaps, the U.S. was not the biggest villain of an international gathering. That honor was shared by Australia and the various insurgents and para-militaries, right and left, of Colombia and the Amazon basin. Canada and even Norway also received sharp criticism.
U.S. Indian speakers tended to be tribal dissidents, and, with a few exceptions, tribal governments and national Indian organizations were notably absent. So U.S. official delegates sat still and listened.
In a response to questions from Indian Country Today, the U.S. Mission to the UN even called on this country's tribal governments to participate more actively. "We hope a greater number of U.S. tribal governments will participate in the third session of the Permanent Forum next year," said the statement, "and will contribute to the dialogue and share information about their tribal government programs and successes."
U.S. government support did not include cash, however. The U.S. Mission said the United States has not contributed to date to the Voluntary Fund to supplement the Permanent Forum budget, "and has no plans at present to contribute to the fund."
The U.S. did note, however, that the Permanent Forum secretariat, a newly created bureaucracy in the UN's Department of Social and Economic Affairs, and its meetings were "financed through the regular UN budget, to which the [U.S. Government] provides the greatest contribution."
The current Bush administration had a reputation in its first years for ignoring or disdaining international meetings that it considered hostile to American interests. U.S. diplomats even walked out of the August 2001 World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, just weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks. But the U.S. observer delegation, including officials from the departments of State and Interior, kept a low profile at the Permanent Forum.
None of the officials made formal statements during the general sessions, said the U.S. Mission, but they "had informal discussions with participants and indigenous organization representatives."
Not much was seen of Ambassador Sichan Siv, the chief U.S. delegate to the UN Economic and Social Council who by protocol has ambassadorial rank. He did attend an opening high-level panel on "Indigenous Children and Youth," the theme of the forum. But during the two weeks of the conference, the New York papers mentioned his name instead for hobnobbing with Wall Street Journal editorial writers at a speech by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The New York press and even United Nations correspondents largely ignored the Forum, preferring to cover the UN Security Council vote on ending sanctions on Iraq and a press conference with billionaire George Soros, the international currency speculator.
But the Forum speakers provided earfuls of specific accusations to the diplomats, U.S. and other, who stayed to listen, even though speaking time was severely limited. More than 70 people signed up to make statements, for instance, during the May 19 afternoon allotted to human rights.
Aqqaqluk Lynge of Greenland, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, raised the case of the indigenous inhabitants of Thule who were relocated for a U.S. Air Force Base. Even though the relocation took place 50 years ago, their suit is just approaching a decision in the Danish Supreme Court, possibly in November. The issue has a new life with the U.S. Star Wars initiative, which requires an upgrading of the Thule radar array.
U.S. diplomats had good reason to pay attention to Lynge, since the Greenland Home Rule office is pressing Denmark to include indigenous representatives in its negotiations over expansion of the U.S. Air Force lease.
Lynge did double duty in his brief presentation, also attacking Norway over the Finnmark Act on behalf of the Sami Council.
Other deep policy differences remain. The U.S. Mission continues to use the phrase "indigenous people" as opposed to its plural distinction, "indigenous peoples." Many indigenous peoples assert their own societal and governmental realities, which often predate the establishment of colonial rule.
Stated the U.S. Mission: "The U.S. supports a strong draft declaration that covers indigenous people throughout the world. This is a complicated matter as the situation for indigenous people varies from Asia to Africa to Latin America, Europe and the U.S. Generally the U.S. would like to see a declaration that clearly states that indigenous people should have control over their local affairs."
Although the trend in the U.S. has been toward support for self-determination by Indian governments the Mission readily acknowledged that not all governments are in line with such policies.
The U.S. faced a sharp indictment in the session on health, although speakers from around the world described an indigenous pattern of lower life expectancy, above normal disease and dramatically high suicide rates. Kent Lebsock of the American Indian Law Alliance said "dramatic inequities in income distribution" among other things, "had made it almost impossible to provide high-quality modern health care to those who needed it most."
Chief Gary Harrison of Chickaloon Village appealed to the UN to put Alaska back on the decolonization list. He said the Native health problems "stemmed from the illegal taking of land and resources, and the extinguishment of cultures, religions, subsistence and traditional forms of government."
The U.S. government delegates passed up the chance to reply to these charges, but they did not try to suppress them, either. In its reply to ICT, the U.S. Mission even stated, "We were pleased to see Indian Country coverage of the Permanent Forum."