Conference diplomacy at the United Nations and the advancement of indigenous rights.

Author:Pulitano, Elvira
Position:Conference news

"The participation of indigenous peoples at the United Nations has enabled them to work together peacefully and in partnership with States to advance their issues and rights."--The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, 22-23 September 2014, United Nations, New York.

On 22 September 2014, the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) was held at United Nations Headquarters in New York. This was a two-day high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly in which indigenous representatives from around the world met with Member States, United Nations System entities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and specialized agencies to share perspectives and best practices on the realization of their rights. The Conference resulted in an action-oriented outcome document (1) that reaffirmed the commitment to promote and advance indigenous peoples' inalienable rights and pursue the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007.

There is no question that the presence and collaboration of indigenous peoples at the United Nations has gained significant prominence in the past few decades as a result of conference diplomacy. In an interview with UNTV, Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu said that for indigenous peoples, events such as the WCIP are "a sign of hope" towards "full life and not just survival." (2) When analyzed within the context of the history of the relation between indigenous peoples and the United Nations, Ms. Menchu's words are a powerful testimony to the goals and aspirations of the some 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide who yet today "face systemic discrimination and exclusion from political and economic power." (3)

For almost a century, indigenous peoples have been bringing their claims to the attention of the international community. Even before the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, indigenous peoples effectively advocated for their rights by appealing to the League of Nations. Earlier in the 1920s, Chief Deskaheh, from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and Maori religious leader T.W. Ratana traveled to Geneva to defend the right of their people to their lands and religious practices. Both were denied permission to speak, a decision that carried on centuries of discrimination and denial of rights to indigenous peoples under international law. (4) The legacy of these early examples of unsuccessful international diplomacy would however be passed on to future generations of indigenous leaders who, starting from the late 1970s, travelled once again to the United Nations to advocate for indigenous rights and self-determination. (5) In 1982 the Working Group on Indigenous Populations was established by the United Nations Economic and Social Council as part of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (then known as the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities). In 1985 the Working Group began drafting a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was completed in draft form in 1993. That year was also proclaimed the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. And in June of that same year, indigenous peoples participated at, and some even addressed, the Second World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. It was at this conference that United Nations Member States recognized their responsibility in promoting and affirming the rights of indigenous peoples and made recommendations for the creation of a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) within the United Nations structure. In 1994 the General Assembly of the United Nations launched the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004) with the intent to increase the United Nations commitment to promoting indigenous rights worldwide. This would expand into a Second Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (2005-2015) in order to further strengthen international cooperation in solving the problems affecting indigenous communities. More significantly, it highlighted the urgency to develop action-oriented programmes aimed at the improvement of indigenous peoples' lives in areas such as culture, education, health, human rights, the environment and social and economic development. (6) Indigenous peoples are also the focus of the Post-2015 Development Agenda as it has been recognized that the implementation of a human rights-based approach to development should address the theme of indigenous peoples and inequalities. (7)

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