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Expert mechanism adds implementation clout to UN declaration

GENEVA - The adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the U.N. General Assembly last September was hailed as a historic political and moral victory for the world's 370 million indigenous peoples. Now that victory will be backed up with some practical clout to implement the declaration's principles of self-government, protection of cultural identities and control over traditional lands and territories.

On Dec. 13, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution to establish the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The expert mechanism will report directly to the council as a subsidiary body that will ''assist the Human Rights Council in the implementation of its mandate.'' The body will consist of five independent experts selected according to U.N. criteria.

The resolution creating the expert mechanism ''strongly recommends'' the inclusion of indigenous experts. Members of the group will provide thematic expertise and make proposals and recommendations directly to the council regarding the rights of indigenous peoples.

Consisting of 47 member states, the HRC replaced the Commission on Human Rights in 2006 as part of the U.N. restructuring project. Part of its mandate is to promote ''universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all'' and ''to address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon. It should also promote the effective mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system.''

''We're really excited about the expert mechanism. This new mechanism will provide us with the opportunity to propose ways for the council, U.N. member states and the U.N. system as a whole to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,'' said Andrea Carmen, Yaqui and the executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council. IITC is a nongovernmental organization that works for the recognition and protection of indigenous rights. IITC is one of around 20 NGOs with consultative status to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

''The expert mechanism will be able to make recommendations to implement remedies for human rights abuses.''

IITC and other indigenous organizations have been advocating for the creation of a body like the expert mechanism since June 2006 during the fifth session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Francisco Cali, Mayan Kaqchikel from Guatemala and IITC's board chairman, said the expert mechanism will provide unprecedented opportunities ''to coordinate efforts to defend indigenous peoples' rights among various U.N. bodies, experts, agencies and treaty monitoring bodies.''

The groups struggled to get certain provisions in place, Carmen said.

''We fought hard and wrote it carefully because it had to be adopted by consensus - that was one of the issues we were up against - so we had to keep the language very general and at the same time not close any doors about what this new body could actually do. We think we've achieved that since it's a very broad mandate and also we're not restricted in terms of the kinds of proposals and recommendations we can make.''

Many recommendations are already in place and ready for the expert mechanism to review as a result of studies that have been completed on treaties, land rights and issues of cultural heritage for the expert mechanism to review, she said. ''It's really going to be up to getting good experts in there and seeing what they will do, because the resolution also says the mechanism will design its own method of work.''

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Participation is open to states, U.N. agencies, NGOs and indigenous peoples' organizations, among others.

There are now many people among the indigenous communities who have gained expertise from working in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

''So, of course, we consider our elders, our activists, people who have been doing this work and have some degree of knowledge of international human rights, but at the same time it's very important they have a feeling for how indigenous people see and experience these issues,'' she said.

''It's always a challenge, I think, to bend the U.N. system and international system to fit their considerations and worldview to indigenous peoples, but we've been doing it now for over 30 years.''

As a testimony to that work, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is replete with ''talk about the spiritual links to the land, the collective rights of indigenous peoples, their collective relationship to the land, the languages and cultures - all of these things created a new way of looking at the existing rights that we have,'' Carmen said.

But the declaration has no way of addressing specific violations of indigenous rights. The hope is that the expert mechanism will work in a practical way on the ground to address issues. How will it work, for example, if a government and a corporation were working in tandem to mine uranium on indigenous land or near a sacred site?

The expert mechanism will look at the problem both as an obstacle to the implementation of rights and how implementation has to be carried out, Carmen said.

''The mechanism will ask, what is that state doing in collaboration with a mining company or whatever that is denying the implementation of a particular right for indigenous peoples. In this case, it would be the right to access and protection of a sacred site, which is protected under international law as freedom of religion for indigenous peoples which is always tied to a place,'' Carmen said.

''We're going to work very hard to make sure that every single one of these issues is addressed somehow. It may be saying, 'Look, you're talking about this mine is contaminating your river so you can't fish anymore. Well, the U.N. Rapporteur on the Right to Food really needs to look at that, so we can help you to refer that.' We'll send on the case and detail it in the report submitted to the council. We're hoping to be able to assist in the coordination of efforts among al the different aspects of the U.N. system so that nobody's situation falls through the cracks.''

Chief Willie Littlechild, Ermineskin Cree and representative of the International Organization of Indigenous Resource Development, noted the unusually fast time frame in which the new body was put in place, saying, ''The establishment of the new expert mechanism is evidence of the good faith and political will of the Human Rights Council.''

Not everyone was happy with the creation of the expert mechanism, however. Although the resolution was adopted by consensus, a few states expressed their concerns following the adoption. Cuba said it would have preferred a more inclusive resolution, according to the HRC Web site; and Bolivia, one of the original sponsors of the resolution, withdrew its name from the text with regrets that ''the full participation of indigenous peoples is not guaranteed.''

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