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UN to vote on permanent forum for Indigenous issues

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The rights of Indigenous peoples has been at the center of debate since the United Nations was formed 52 years ago.

However, in what manner and to what degree has it centered on the true needs or perspectives of Indigenous people. It is this kind of questioning and concern which led to a vote on establishing a permanent forum on Indigenous issues in the United Nations. The vote is expected by the end of the month, yet the U.S. government has not decided if it will support the concept.

Only in the last 20 years have Indigenous people, some 300 million worldwide, been allowed to officially address the United Nations through a temporary working group set up to advise member states with drafting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous. After working on the declaration, Indigenous representatives and some member states came to realize the need for a permanent forum to address ongoing issues.

Following some debate, a permanent forum was recommended with the support of the U.S. government. This recommendation was echoed and supported in the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights.

While the idea gained strong support both in and outside the United Nations, sources within the State Department say that the United States has concerns about "budgetary implications of the permanent forum."

Department officials say there is a strict U.S. policy that a new or increased U.N. budgetary item, such as the forum, must be met with an offset decrease somewhere else in the budget. Therefore, the United States may raise such a concern during the vote. However, sources say that decision is still under consideration.

If established, the U.N. Permanent Forum would include 16 members - eight nominated by member states and elected by the Economic and Social Council and eight appointed by the council president after discussions with "all interested parties," taking into account the diversity of Indigenous peoples around the world.

States, U.N. bodies and non-governmental and Indigenous organizations could all act as observers. The forum would meet10 days a year and submit an annual report to the council including any recommendations for approval. After the first annual session of the forum, the council would review existing mechanisms, procedures and programs within the United Nations 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.

While the United States has been supportive of the concept of a permanent forum in the past, it is only the issue of financing which is being raised as a possible obstacle. Tribal leaders are troubled by the idea and express concern that the United States would ever jeopardize the establishment of such an important body.

"I find it hard to believe that the U.S. could block the establishment of a permanent forum in good conscious," said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota. "We've been working President Clinton on the Draft Declaration and he expressed his strong support for our efforts. If the U.S. stands in the way of this, it would set us way back."

The Economic and Social Council is expected to vote on the forum at the United Nations in New York July 28.