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What Did Indigenous Peoples Get Out of the World Conference?

Now that the historic High Level Plenary Meeting, known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is over, we can begin to see what it produced.

Now that the historic High Level Plenary Meeting, known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (HPLM/WCIP), has come and gone, we can begin to see what it produced. Some of the results are definitive, while others are more process-oriented, so we can’t know yet what all the outcomes will be.

The ultimate goal of the conference was to produce an outcome document, agreed upon by Member States. Indigenous Peoples had no “official” say in the drafting process other than their input during the preparation process. This culminated in the Alta Outcome Document in 2013, and a consultative role through two informal interactive hearings, convened in July and August of this year. This lack of an “official” voice was why the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus’ (NAIPC) withdrew from the HPLM/WCIP and issued a call to cancel the conference.

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During the interactive hearings, indigenous representatives from all regions of the globe were able to comb through the document Member States were drafting (at that point called the Zero Draft). All involved were able to comment and make recommendations on ideas and language.

The Alta Outcome Document can be thought of as a set of ideals and recommendations from Indigenous Peoples, with their common and diverse needs, on how to enact the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It is essentially a call to action for states to respect in very specific ways the rights and interests of Indigenous Peoples. The WCIP Outcome Document, on the other hand, sidesteps some of the key components of the Alta Document by using language that de-emphasizes those concerns. The net effect is that states maintain political dominance.

The Alta Document divides the concerns of Indigenous Peoples into themes that focus on their most important concerns. They include the protection of lands, territories, resources, oceans and waters; how the U.N. system can ensure the protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples through UNDRIP; and Indigenous Peoples’ priorities for development with free, prior and informed consent—one of the foundational principles in UNDRIP. It also envisions the creation of a U.N. mechanism to ensure the implementation of the Declaration, with the “full, equal, and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples.”

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Recommendations include the creation of new treaties and constructive agreements, the protection of indigenous women, and for states to develop policies to protect their lands and resources from toxic industries. It also calls for states to cease population transfers and the reduction of indigenous populations to the category of minorities (a move recently made by the Russian Federation when its new nationalization law declared Russia no longer has any Indigenous Peoples).

The WCIP Outcome Document, as expected, makes no revolutionary new commitments to elevate the political status of Indigenous Peoples in the UN. Instead, it uses softer language to affirm aspects of the Alta Document.

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For example, where Alta recommended the establishment of additional mechanisms to “ensure the implementation of the right of free, prior and informed consent” related to extractive industries and other development activities, the WCIP Outcome Document simply “recognizes commitments” states have already made through UNDRIP to obtain free, prior, and informed consent” through Indigenous Peoples’ “representative institutions.”

The phrase “representative institutions” also indicates a watering down of the language. In the Zero Draft, the term “indigenous governments” was incorporated. During the markup period of the WCIP Outcome Document, however, several states objected to the term “governments” and the phrase “representative institutions” was adopted instead. This is an obvious attempt by state governments to minimize the existence of indigenous governments, and to deny them political equality with states governments.

Although the phrase “representative institutions” dilutes “indigenous governments,” it does affirm the governing powers of those “institutions.” In paragraph 3 states reiterate their support for UNDRIP and affirm “commitments made in this respect to consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous Peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them…” The integration of “representative institutions” and “free, prior, and informed consent” in this clause presents the potential for the future bolstering of indigenous nations’ political power.

On September 22 the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) issued a statement expressing appreciation for elements of the Outcome Document, such as paragraph 27, which contains a commitment by states to strengthen efforts toward the repatriation of cultural and ceremonial items and human remains. Also acknowledged was paragraphs 28 and 29, which encourage states to incorporate UNDRIP more fully with their human rights obligations.

The IITC statement also expressed “regret that the final WCIP Outcome Document did not include a specific reference to the development of an international oversight mechanism for the observance of Treaties, Agreements and other Constructive Arrangements” as recommended in the Alta Outcome document, and was proposed at each of the consultations by IITC and other Indigenous Peoples from several regions.

Additionally, the Document was adopted with reservations by the Holy See (objecting to a clause guaranteeing reproductive rights) and Canada (who objects to the concept of “free, prior, and informed consent”). “Reservations” means that states’ governments opt out of those clauses to which it objects, and it’s possible that more governments will formally register written reservations.

More extensive examinations of the Alta and WCIP Outcome Documents will surely follow in the weeks and months to come. For now, it’s enough to say that Indigenous Peoples’ representatives got far less in the Outcome Document than they wanted based on their recommendations in Alta, but that modest gains were made.

The WCIP Outcome Document is part of a growing body of international protocols that collectively can be seen as a gradual accumulation of political power for Indigenous Peoples in the UN system. What Indigenous Peoples got out of the World Conference, however imperfectly, is greater recognition of their rights in the international system.