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U.N. Permanent Forum Generates First Global Partnership Promoting Indigenous Rights

Indigenous peoples around the globe have a new initiative to promote and protect their rights.

The 10th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) taking place in New York from May 16-27 has launched the United Nations Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership (UNIPP). The partnership is committed to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and dedicated to its full implementation through financial cooperation and technical assistance, the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) announced May 20.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the partnership and urged all countries “to support this new initiative so that it can fulfill its potential to turn the Declaration’s principles into reality.” He noted that “indigenous people suffered centuries of oppression, and continue to lose their lands, their languages and their resources at an alarming rate.” Despite these obstacles” he said, “indigenous people make an enormous contribution to our world, including through their spiritual relationship with the earth. By helping indigenous peoples regain their rights, we will also protect our shared environment for the benefit of all.”

There are more than 370 million indigenous peoples in approximately 90 countries. They account for 15 percent of the world’s poor and one-third of the 900 million people living in extreme poverty, the UNOG said. Indigenous people have low levels of education, increased health problems, higher crime rates and human rights abuses. Indigenous children are less likely than other children to attend school and more likely to drop out if they do. Indigenous girls are at even greater risk of being excluded from school. Indigenous children often face a lifetime of discrimination and exclusion, deepening their disadvantages and perpetuating the cycle of poverty, the UNOG said.

The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is drawn within a human rights framework, was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2007. The Declaration and the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention, adopted in 1989, are regarded as the key international instruments for promoting and protecting indigenous peoples’ rights.

The newly launched UNIPP aims to secure the rights of indigenous peoples, strengthen their institutions and ability to fully participate in governance and policy processes at the local and national levels, including conflict prevention in regard to ancestral land and the use of natural resources. As Ban Ki-Moon noted, many indigenous communities experience exploitation of their lands and resources by extractive industries – in many cases without regard to their rights. The new partnership will include International Labor Organization (ILO), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the U.N. Children’s Fund, and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and will work to “strengthen their collaborative framework and partnership for the promotion and implementation of indigenous peoples’ rights through joint country programmes.”

These participating organizations have established an UNIPP Multi-Donor Trust Fund to realize the UNIPP’s objectives and other U.N. agencies or organizations are welcome to participate. UNIPP will be governed and directed by a Policy Board comprised of representatives from participating U.N. organizations, and indigenous representatives and experts who are identified in consultation with the U.N. mechanisms on indigenous peoples’ issues. The UNDP Multi?Donor Trust Fund Office (MDTF Office) will administer the fund.

Over the next few years, UNIPP’s work will include:

  • •Legislative review and reform: To develop state institutions’ abilities to include and recognize indigenous peoples’ rights within national legal systems, through constitutional reforms, incorporation at administrative levels, and through indigenous?specific legislation in areas such as nondiscrimination.
  • •Democratic governance and indigenous peoples’ institutions: To strengthen indigenous peoples’ institutions and organizational capacities to fully participate in governance and policy processes.
  • •Access to justice: To recognize and strengthen indigenous customary law and justice systems and their inclusion within national legal systems.
  • •Access to land and ancestral territories: To develop and strengthen capacities for land titling, demarcation and use of ancestral territories, including local capacity development initiatives and those aimed at securing greater recognition of indigenous lands.
  • •Natural resources and extractive industries: To promote conflict prevention, based on consultation, participation, benefit?sharing and dispute resolution. This area will have a special focus on conflict prevention initiatives around ancestral land and use of natural resources, in particular the need to develop capacity of indigenous communities in negotiation skills and dispute resolution in line with international legal instruments.

Mirna Cunninghan, the chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum, said UNIPP is “an important step in the efforts of indigenous peoples everywhere to fully realize their human rights. We look forward to our continued work with the U.N. so that the voiceless will be heard and that we can bring about dignity and respect for the diversity of our cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations.”

Indigenous knowledge is valuable and needed, the UNOG said. Over generations, indigenous peoples have developed highly specialized knowledge, livelihood strategies, occupations and cultures, which are closely linked to lands, territories and natural resources. “In the context of today’s crisis, indigenous knowledge is critical to the search for new solutions, which link human development, human rights, peace and environmental sustainability,” the UNOG said. “Indigenous peoples are in a unique position to contribute to addressing the most pressing environmental and social challenges of our time. Their partnership is an essential requirement, and something which UNIPP seeks to promote.”