WASHINGTON - Just last month, the United Nations Economic and Social Council for the first time adopted by consensus a resolution establishing a Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, a first in the history of the U.N. and international policy.
The vote is the latest step in a process initiated in 1993, when the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights first proposed such a forum.
"This is an historic step forward," said Mary Robinson, United Nations high commissioner for human rights. "The Permanent Forum promises to give Indigenous peoples a unique voice within the United Nations system, commensurate with the unique problems which many Indigenous peoples still face, but also with the unique contribution they make to the human rights dialogue at the local, national and international levels."
These rights have debated since the United Nations was formed some 52 years ago, but only managed to gain the real attention of U.N. member states within the last 20 years, following increased pressure from Indigenous groups worldwide. This pressure, coupled with activities associated with a U.N. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, finally forced a change in policy and last month's vote.
There are some 300 million Indigenous people worldwide who have been allowed to officially address the U.N. only through a temporary Working Group charged with drafting the declaration, a document some hope will finally set minimum international human rights standards for Indigenous people.
Over 18 years, the Working Group completed several studies, from the relationship of Indigenous peoples to land, treaties and agreements, to the protection of cultural and religious rights. After working on the declaration, Indigenous representatives of the group and some member states said they realize that once work is completed on the declaration the need for a permanent forum would remain.
Following some debate, a permanent forum was recommended with support of a number of member states, including the U.S. government. This recommendation was supported in the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. Later, when the U.N. General Assembly adopted the program of activities for an International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004), establishment of the forum was identified as a main objective.
While the idea gained strong support in and outside the U.N., some were concerned the U.S. government might not offer full support at a final a vote because of possible budget constraints. However, the United States voted full support of the forum.
If established, the Permanent Forum would include 16 members, eight nominated by member states and elected by the Economic and Social Council, or ECOSOC, and eight appointed by its president following discussions with "all interested parties," taking into account the diversity of Indigenous peoples around the world. States, U.N. bodies, non-governmental organizations and Indigenous organizations could all act as observers. The forum would meet 10 days a year and submit an annual report to the ECOSOC, including any recommendations for approval.
After the first annual forum session, the ECOSOC would review existing mechanisms, procedures and programs within the U.N. concerning Indigenous issues, including the temporary working group, with "a view to rationalizing activities, avoiding duplication and overlap and promoting effectiveness." The forum would be financed through existing resources.
The U.N. Working Group holds that Indigenous people around the world continue to be among the most marginalized and impoverished of the world's peoples, with their ways of life, culture, heritage, and languages under continuous threat.
A number of world conferences recently validated this conclusion as well as the importance of Indigenous peoples to sustainable development and the protection of the earth's biodiversity.