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UN Meets to Debate Rights of Indigenous Peoples

A U.N. body committed to defending the rights of the world's over 370 million indigenous peoples meets later this month (May 14-25) in New York. Among the topics of discussion will be ways to increase international recognition of indigenous rights and to improve the participation of native peoples in their own development. From Washington, VOA reporter William Eagle looks at the upcoming Sixth UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The forum is an advisory body to the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council. Its mandate includes issues related to the human rights of indigenous peoples and their social and economic development.

One of the topics at this month's meeting will be the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It lays out what many indigenous people say are minimum standards for respecting their unique rights, including rights to land, resources and traditional knowledge. Supporters say it would also reinforce universal principles, such as justice, good governance, equality and non-discrimination.

The U.N. Human Rights Council passed the non-binding declaration last June, and the General Assembly is expected to vote on it before the current session ends in September. Many supporters of the document will be lobbying U.N. members this summer for its passage.

Supporters say opposition to the declaration has come from parts of the developed world and national governments.

Some of those opposed to it are concerned that their own ability to exploit natural resources like gas, oil and timber could be undermined by the document, which recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands.

Nigel Crawhall is the director of the Secretariat of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, which is based in Cape Town, South Africa. He explains what, in his opinion, the document would do:

"It would create a category of rights within the general framework of human rights that is specific to indigenous people. There are already mechanisms on children, minorities, women, and refugee and other vulnerable communities, and this would recognize the specific vulnerability of indigenous people and create standards to measure whether their human rights are being fully respected," he said.

The novel aspect of this is that it would leave indigenous people to their territories, which include some privately held land, so the sustainability of indigenous people is linked to their ability to govern themselves and make decisions about their future and about the resources within their territories, as they would have done traditionally.

Crawhall says the declaration would serve as a standard reference document that could be cited in future cases regarding human rights by, for example, the African Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court.

He says similar international legal documents setting forth standards for indigenous peoples' rights influenced a ruling last December by the Botswana High Court.

After hearing testimony by scores of complainants from the country's San (or Bushmen) community, the Court agreed the government had forced the San to leave their traditional land, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and ruled that those who had brought the case could return to their homes. However, the Court said that the government had no obligation to provide the returnees with water, electricity or other services.

"What is significant is that the government of Botswana denied there was such a concept as indigenous people in Africa and said everyone is indigenous so the concept is meaningless. The Court -- in line with the African Commission on Human and People's Rights and the UN Human Rights Council -- said that is not the case: There are indigenous people in Africa and they do have rights that are specific to indigenous peoples," he said.

Another topic of discussion at the U.N. Forum will be the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, the CBD, which includes an article guaranteeing the participation of indigenous peoples in their own development and urges the protection and promotion of their traditional knowledge.

Most African states have signed the CBD convention.

"CBD is a binding convention and states that sign it have to show what action they are taking to protect traditional knowledge and peoples rights. When we talk about traditional knowledge systems, these are practices passed down from parent to children through the generations and they are not recognized in most cases," he said.

"So traditional knowledge," Crawhall continued, " is often related to hunting and tracking animals and gathering wild foods. People learn a great deal about nature and the environment in this way. African governments tend not to recognize this learning as knowledge and skills related to livelihoods and the sustainable use of nature. The Convention on Biological Diversity encourages governments to recognize the value of traditional knowledge.

"The concern is what is causing the destruction of that traditional knowledge and of bio-diversity and what can the state do -- in partnership with indigenous people -- to reverse this…so that traditional knowledge becomes a resource not only for traditional people, but for protecting the world's biodiversity."

U.N. agencies and states that sign the CBD agreement will commit to incorporating the concerns of indigenous peoples in their global development plans.

One mechanism that will also be discussed at the New York meeting is an U.N.-sanctioned study of "Indicators of Well-Being." The indicators are based on interviews with indigenous peoples. They include what indigenous peoples -- many of whom are not wage earners, but rely on natural resources -- consider to be their own measures of poverty and development. The U.N. and national governments will use the Indicators of Wellbeing to determine how they can better reduce poverty and work to improve the lives of indigenous peoples.

The Forum will also look at some of the issues facing indigenous migrants who leave their territories for work in urban areas, sometimes in other countries. For example, those who cross borders are often subject to abuse, economic exploitation, poor living conditions, arrest and deportation. And it is not unusual for those migrants who return home to find that their traditional land has been lost.

"Many indigenous people in North Africa cannot survive on their economies in Morocco, Algeria and other countries so they migrate to Europe to work. But due to currency controls it may be difficult to get [their earned] money back to their families in rural areas. Their government does not necessarily commit itself to the free flow of money… The issue is about economic and ecological migrants who've gone to Europe to earn income to feed families back home."

Crawhall says Africa is already seeing advances in the rights of indigenous people. He says, for example, that the government of Burundi and indigenous rights groups there are working together to minimize the effects of climate change and to protect biodiversity.

Meanwhile, he says, on the international level, U.N. agencies are improving their collection and dissemination of data on indigenous peoples. He says U.N. agencies with such varied concerns as forestry, health care, labor rights, agriculture and children's rights are coordinating their activities to better extend development to indigenous groups.