World Conference Takes Concrete Action to Benefit Indigenous Peoples

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On September 22, all 193 member countries of the United Nations came together in overwhelming support of a document to further the rights of indigenous peoples. Known widely as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples outcome document, the six page resolution of the General Assembly is the highest achievable action by countries acting through the UN. The commitments of the UN and member states in the outcome document were hailed as a victory by hundreds of indigenous nations, and by many of the over 1,000 indigenous representatives who participated in the World Conference on September 22 and 23 at UN Headquarters in New York City. The outcome document included four priorities developed by U.S. tribes.

Recent pieces in on this website contain views condemning the World Conference, arguing that indigenous peoples were somehow duped or deceived by the UN, and suggesting that there is no real support for the outcome document. These are simply factually incorrect claims.

In fact, a great many indigenous peoples and their representatives, including tribal and indigenous governments, were directly involved in conversations and consultations with UN countries to develop the content of the outcome document throughout the entire process, from 2012 onward. It was an honor to represent the Central Council of Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska at the World Conference and to be a part of the 136 indigenous nations and 23 organizations that proposed the four measures to be included in the outcome document. Other tribal leaders and I participated in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2013 and 2014, and three preparatory meetings in consultation with the President of the General Assembly and member states. Tribal leaders developed four priorities intended to be lasting measures that implement the goals of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Tribal leaders advocated for these four proposals with UN member states over two years, while working against language that would diminish the UN Declaration. Only in the very last few weeks of the process were UN member states left to find consensus on the document; however, tribal leaders still advocated with individual UN member states as they achieved consensus. The relationships established by tribal leaders during the last two years and the constant communication with indigenous peoples throughout the late stage negotiations secured a place for the four priorities in the consensus outcome document. We commend our friends among these UN member states and in the office of the President of the General Assembly for their good faith efforts and diligent work.

Of course, the UN process is not perfect. At present, indigenous nations are not members of the UN nor are they subject to the UN Charter, and therefore, indigenous nations do not vote on General Assembly resolutions; but UN member states do. The UN has relied upon non-governmental organizations organized in seven regional caucuses to report the interests and concerns of indigenous peoples. What indigenous leaders did accomplish with the World Conference is to establish that indigenous governments are the most effective advocates of their indigenous citizens, and by their advocacy, succeeded in transforming a rare opportunity into serious commitments by UN member states and into concrete and decisive actions that will be taken by various bodies of the UN. The four actions we proposed that were included in the final document are:

1. Initiation of a process to create a permanent body in the UN system to monitor and encourage implementation of the Declaration;

2. Development of options for a General Assembly decision to make it possible for Indian tribal governments and other indigenous governments to participate in UN meetings on a permanent basis;

3. Giving particular attention to the epidemic of violence against indigenous women, including Indian and Alaska Native women in the United States; and

4. Measures to respect and protect places sacred to Indian and other indigenous nations and peoples.

It is widely known that human rights instruments like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have little effect unless steps are taken to implement the rights they proclaim. A permanent body in the UN system to promote and monitor compliance with the Declaration will do much to assure that indigenous rights are protected. Even more important, having Indian and other indigenous governments participating in the UN will assure that we are always at the UN to defend our rights and to work with member states to resolve problems. And, of course, UN participation in combating violence against indigenous women and protecting sacred places is a significant improvement for indigenous peoples facing such grave situations.

We celebrate these victories; they have been few and far between. We must remain positive and carry these good decisions made at the UN into our work at home and abroad. Prosperity is the best protector of principles. Debt and deficit challenges have tested the federal government’s commitment to inherent tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. Advocacy by Indian governments at the UN will provide an international conscience over domestic Indian policies, while giving us a seat at the table for important issues such as climate change and trade. We must assert our rights as indigenous governments at the UN, a body of governments, and we should remain engaged in the world community. Both the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the decisions made in the outcome document enjoy the support of UN member states for implementation, and they are two practicable and realizable positive developments that are useful and advantageous to our indigenous peoples and to our indigenous governments. Further, these documents can be particularly useful to empower and to prevent abuses against our indigenous brothers and sisters around the world. As leaders of our indigenous nations, accountable to our indigenous peoples, we should work to turn these commitments into action in the coming months by working directly with UN member states and relevant UN bodies. I invite many more tribal leaders to join the fight in this important international political arena.

Will Micklin is 1st Vice President of the Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a federally recognized Indian tribal government headquartered in Juneau, Alaska, with over 29,000 tribal citizens and communities in southeast Alaska. Will is CEO of the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians and Ewiiaapaayp Indian Reservation in east San Diego County, California, and volunteers as executive director of the California Association of Tribal Governments, the state-wide, tribally chartered, inter-tribal association of Indian tribes in California.