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Twenty-five years of Indigenous at the United Nations

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Indigenous peoples ? including American Indians and tribal peoples worldwide ? have made substantial progress in the international arena these past 25 years.

Most recently, the United Nations, via its Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), adopted Resolution E/2000/22, establishing a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that promises to be a significant catalyst for representation of Native peoples in the United Nations

The permanent forum is one more but important step in a long and arduous process that began, in a contemporary sense, in 1977, when 165 delegates representing 60 Native nations from 15 countries in the Western Hemisphere traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, at the invitation of the U.N.'s Non-Governmental Organizations.

That conference, on Discrimination Against the Indians of the Americas, was a watershed event, providing early bases of definition and unity among Native nations that have persisted and grown since then.

For the first time an international body heard the message of Native leaders, who reviewed their economic, social and legal histories of oppression, genocide and ethnocide, and proposed potential solutions to the ongoing problems of their populations. In particular the delegations from the United States and Canada included significant representation from Native women, who presented many of the historic documents and interventions.

The process of international representation that has sustained for a quarter century has been slow but sure. Other events followed the 1977 genesis, notably the 1981 Conference on Indigenous Peoples and the Land, and the 1982 creation of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

In 1992, large Native delegations provided a core alternative ecological philosophy to the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development. By 1996, more than 800 Indigenous representatives were participating in the Working Group. A Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has circulated and generated discussion of evolving standards for the protection of Native nations for more than 20 years.

Studies of treaty histories and on the Cultural Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the establishment of the International Decade of Indigenous peoples emerged from those years.

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Now the permanent forum has become a reality. The forum will consist of 16 members: eight members to be nominated by governments and elected by ECOSOC, and eight to be appointed by the president of the Economic and Social Council on the basis of broad consultations with Indigenous organizations.

Other international agencies, including the U.N.'s international development and environment programs, and even the World Bank, a frequent nemesis of Indigenous peoples, have found the need to address Native concerns.

Belatedly but significantly, the World Bank has been busy establishing new and more positive guidelines on the impacts of its mega-projects on Native populations. The provisions in question are most often not binding and don't yet address the most troublesome aspects of development, such as forced resettlement or actual and effective participation in decision-making by the affected communities, but they have opened a way to focus on these issues, and that is important.

While it is true that the progress promised by the Native peoples' entrance into the international arena is seldom obvious, nevertheless, in many cases lives have been safeguarded and Indigenous rights have been considered because of it.

Beyond the long and often tedious debates on what constitutes proper language and instructions for international dialogue, the process has opened up very significant networking opportunities. Remote and often isolated Native communities have achieved partnerships with other Indigenous peoples, with human rights groups and with funding sources that greatly enhanced their ability to survive and sometimes overcome serious repression.

A good case can be made, for example, that the Zapatista movement in Chiapas would have been crushed militarily had it not been for its ability to speak to the world through the wide network of Indigenous contacts created by the international process.

And, certainly, the Guatemalan peace accords of 1996 that focused Indigenous rights were greatly supported and informed by the language and activity of its activists. Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum has been a strong presence in many such forums. Likewise, issues of sterilization abuse against Native women have been assailed and pushed back because of the opportunity to present them to the world.

We congratulate the council resolution on the permanent forum and express our respect to the many international Native activists, scholars, lawyers and community leaders who have persisted in the effort to open space for Indigenous peoples in the global arena. A great deal of work remains to be done, particularly in the area of international trade and economic cooperation, but this is coming.

'Step upon step, we will prevail,' the well-remembered Muskogee-Creek medicine man, Phillip Deere, an early voice in the process, expressed in 1977. 'No matter how small a Native group may be, they each have the right to be heard