Indigenous leaders convene at U.N. to push for human rights protections

The international forum provides a rare opportunity for communities from across the globe to meet. Here’s what’s on the table.


This story is published as part of the Global Indigenous Affairs Desk, an Indigenous-led collaboration between Grist, Indian Country Today and High Country News.

Indigenous communities around the world face an alarming quartet: state violence, human rights abuses, harmful conservation practices, and extractive industries. All these issues and more will be addressed at the 21st session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), which convenes today at U.N. headquarters in New York. 

The forum is a rare opportunity for the international Indigenous community to set a high standard for respecting Indigenous land, rights, and culture and create clear recommendations for the U.N. and its member states. Geoffrey Roth, a Standing Rock Sioux descendant and forum member, says that it is an opportunity to advocate for Indigenous issues and people on a global scale, specifically projects that require the consent of communities. 

“We can really be an example to the world’s leaders in how to preserve the environment,” Roth said. 

“We can really be an example to the world’s leaders in how to preserve the environment.”

The forum also serves as an important platform for young Indigenous leaders. Anpo Jensen, Oglala Lakota, will be attending on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council as an environment and health specialist. She will discuss how health disparities on Pine Ridge can be traced to legacy mining in the Black Hills.

“Our rights aren’t being respected, our voices aren’t being heard. As soon as that happens, I think a lot of good things can happen,” she said.

Victor A. Lopez-Carmen, Yaqui, and enrolled with the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, is a student at Harvard Medical School and co-chair of the U.N. Global Indigenous Youth Caucus. He says that the forum is especially important because of the way it allows Indigenous people from around the world to compare experiences and unite on shared issues.

“Our values are going to push us towards more innovation,” he said. “There aren’t many organizations that can deliver a global statement.”

At the session this week both Jensen and Lopez-Carmen will discuss how centering traditional Indigenous knowledge is imperative for a sustainable future.

“I am hopeful that we can collaboratively design a future where our rights are respected and we are able to meet the needs of people, because we know that power is needed, energy is needed,” Jensen said. “The way it is right now, I think we can all agree that it’s not sustainable and it’s not sufficient and it shouldn’t be the expectation anymore.”

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Established in 2000, UNPFII is an advisory agency to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council with representation from seven regions: Africa; Asia; Central and South America and the Caribbean; the Arctic; Central and Eastern Europe, Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia; North America; and the Pacific. 

Climate migration and conflict will be a key issue throughout the session. Impacts from climate change—including floods, crop failures, and increased temperatures—have forced many Indigenous people to move from their homelands. According to a report from forum members, Indigenous communities in the Sahel and the Congo Basin have been acutely impacted, leading to migration and conflicts over water access and land claims. Competition over resources like Lake Chad, which lost 90% of its surface area and water volume over the last 60 years, is leading to conflict between communities in the area. 

Ongoing violence against Indigenous people will be another major topic with twin crises present across the globe: missing and murdered Indigenous people and violence against Indigenous land defenders. Reem Alsalem, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, will present on the subject. Alsalem is working on a report on violence against Indigenous women and girls, which will be presented at the U.N. Human Rights Council this summer. “Eliminating violence against women is a human rights obligation of states,” she told The New Humanitarian. Indigenous people have also been the victims of violent and illegal conservation efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Brazil, and other places. With the support of  foreign governments and international organizations, Indigenous people have been murdered, abused, and driven from their lands in the name of protecting the environment. 

In the middle of an international effort to transition to greener energy, Indigenous people continue to bear the brunt of harmful resource extraction. According to a member report, the transition to cleaner energy needs to happen quickly, but in a way that respects and consults with Indigenous communities. According to the report, Indigenous peoples are not an obstacle to development, but may have a different idea of what development should look like. Calling for a new global covenant with Indigenous people, the report says that, “Transferring responsibility and sacrifice to groups of people who are the most vulnerable and are excluded from energy policies is not the right way to address the crisis caused by increased climate variability.”

Recently, Indigenous knowledge and culture has received wider recognition and appreciation from non-Indigenous people. While this is a positive step, a member report argues that the international community needs to create stronger protections for Indigenous intellectual property. The report says that “The knowledge, wisdom, tools and methods used by indigenous peoples to solve their problems have been passed on, and should continue to be passed on, as a legacy, not only to future generations, but to the whole of humankind.” Indigenous knowledge and expertise with biodiversity, for example, will be a key part of conserving and protecting the environment. Indigenous people need to lead these efforts however, or they risk exploiting or stealing their intellectual property. According to the report, this would amount to a human rights violation. 

Around the world, Indigenous languages have been under threat for generations. International experts estimate that as much as 95% of today’s spoken languages — many of which are Indigenous — could be extinct or seriously endangered by 2100. To draw attention to the issue, the U.N. declared 2019 as the Year of Indigenous languages, which led to over 800 activities, including technology development and youth education. To make language protection and revitalization more sustainable, the U.N. launched the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which starts this year. Members and invited experts, like Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskins Jr., will talk about ways to increase Indigenous language access and education around the world. 

UNPFII serves as a mechanism for Indigenous issues to be integrated more broadly within the United Nations system, but is also key to advocating for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a non-binding resolution that affirms the rights of Indigenous people around the world. Passed in 2007, UNDRIP was initially opposed by the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand but has since been adopted in those countries as well as over a hundred others around the world. However, while the resolution has been met with support, most of its key provisions have yet to be codified into the legal systems of member states.

Over the course of its 10 days, UNPFII will be tasked with providing advice and recommendations to the U.N. on ensuring that Indigenous peoples' rights are protected. Last year's final report recommended the adoption of legal mechanisms to create stronger human rights protections as well as highlighting global inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The report also raised concerns that efforts to achieve sustainable development goals did not include Indigenous communities and drew attention to various Indigenous rights abuses around the world. Those concerns, and their handling by the international community, will be revisited and evaluated in this year's session.

“Our hammer,” said Geoffrey Roth, “is this final report, which gives recommendations to the U.N. agencies on how to interact and correct things in these nation states and Indigenous communities.”

Note: This story has been updated to include additional voices involved with UNPFII.

Joseph Lee is an Aquinnah Wampanoag writer and lives in New York City. Carina Dominguez is a correspondent for Indian Country Today. She's an enrolled member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson, Arizona.

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