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Tenth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

​Address by Ms. Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High  Commissioner for Human Rights

36th session of the Human  Rights Council

Geneva, 20 September 2017
Room XX, Palais des Nations

Mr. President, Members of the Human Rights Council, 

Excellences, colleagues and friends,

I am honored to open this panel convened in recognition of the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It was in 1923 that Cayuga Chief Deskaheh of the Iroquois nation came to Geneva.  He sought to address the League of Nations on the rights of indigenous people of Canada, having witnessed cruel deprivation of these rights in his home land.  For a year he remained here, seeking a noble hearing of his petition, only to be met with what he later called “cruel indifference”. 

Yet the legacy of his rights-based expectation and demand has not been silenced by the passage of time into irrelevance or redundancy.  Rather his voice retains strength and clarity in both its pertinence and appeal:

“I ask you a question or two. Do not hurry with your answers. Do you believe -- really believe -- that all peoples are entitled to equal protection of international law now that you are so strong? Do you believe -- really believe -- that treaty pledges should be kept? Think these questions over and answer them to yourselves….. I have told this story in Switzerland -- they have free speech in little Switzerland. One can tell the truth over there in public, even if it is uncomfortable for some great people.”1/

94 years later, and a decade on from the momentous adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Chief Deskaheh’s great granddaughter, Karla General, tracks her Grandfather’s footsteps back here to Geneva and we are both honoured and moved that today she joins us on this panel.

This panel is further enriched with participation by a visionary – who played a vital part in the founding of the Declaration: Chief Wilton Littlechild and through contributions by leading representatives of indigenous youth.  Generations of demand, generations of courage, generations of hope.

Since its adoption by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has continued to be recognized as a document of global standard.  It has informed constitutions, statues, regional and national laws. The recently approved American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is based on it.

But how does an indigenous child or youth – girl or boy – young woman or young man - view the past and future implementation of the Declaration?  Are their lives materially different from that of their fore-mothers and -fathers? And as we look to their future, how should implementation proceed, to better reflect indigenous concerns in our rapidly changing, interconnected world?   Our duties to those who come after us must be our preoccupation as the declaration moves into its second decade.

In this, the human rights mechanisms have an important part to play.  Treaty bodies, regional and national courts have all become involved in implementing the rights set out in the Declaration - rights guaranteed by other international human rights instruments.  
The Convention on the Right of the Child was the first of the core human rights treaties to include specific references to indigenous peoples affirming that indigenous children have the right to enjoy their cultures, religions, languages, and have a right to education. Its Committee regularly considered the rights of indigenous children. Just this year in the context of a single state review, it highlighted the impacts of exploitation on indigenous children working in the extractive industries, noting too the detrimental consequences of these industries on their lands, ecosystems and the livelihoods of their families.

Such findings could made in respect of many indigenous children in many states; underscoring the utility of the Optional Protocol to the Convention which now enables indigenous children to bring individual complaints on such concerns.

Reflecting the global struggle for realization of the rights of indigenous peoples, the human rights mechanisms, including other treaty bodies, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of course and the UPR procedure are actively engaged for implementation of the Declaration.

For example, in the context of examining the human rights impacts of business activities, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, makes direct reference to the Declaration’s numerous articles relating to indigenous children and youth while the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is considering development of a general recommendation on the rights of indigenous women and girls.   

Many recommendations emerging from the human rights mechanisms are taking affect. For example, the Human Rights Committee evaluated as satisfactory measures taken by a State party to facilitate education for all Sami children in their own language.  However, much more must be done to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of indigenous peoples.  

Many indigenous children and youth today continue to live on the margins – deprived of opportunity, esteem and protection - living in the aftermath of the destruction of their indigenous cultures. Infant and maternal mortality, alcohol and substance abuse remain high; their access to education, employment and health care persistently low.  Much of this suffering stems from the deeply rooted trauma that is forced assimilation.  In a recent testimony on the high rates of suicide among indigenous youth, one indigenous woman described this as life “in a perpetual state of mourning”.

By what means can we ensure that young indigenous women and men, boys and girls are free to exercise their desire to live in harmony with their identity: to exercise their equal rights to live in dignity?

First - Engage, empower, enable: Indigenous children and youth must be partners of equal dignity when it comes to implementing their rights under the Declaration. Girls and boys, young women and young men must be actively engaged in terms of what they want, of how they see their futures unfolding and of how they can best be assisted to realise these aspirations.
Many indigenous youth champions are pointing us down this path – showing the power and promise of their contributions to the advance of indigenous rights – on and off line. In Latin America and the Caribbean for instance, indigenous youth helped develop national plans on health for indigenous peoples, with a focus on youth.

Among exemplary indigenous youth leaders, are many who joined our indigenous fellowship programme over the last 20 years.  We will showcase their work in a new video to be launched this week to mark the 10th anniversary of the Declaration.

In addition to lifting up the voices of indigenous children and youth, quality, sufficient and appropriate data must be collected and analysed if policies affecting indigenous peoples’ lives are to be based on sound evidence. The collection of data is not sufficient, but it is essential – essential to comprehensive assessment of the extent and range of challenges confronting indigenous peoples today. 

Where such data are gathered they more often present a bleak picture of how indigenous peoples are made to live. But at least that picture is known and the landscape it describes thus can begin to be more accurately traversed.  What might be the hidden reality in places where specific data on indigenous peoples’ lives is missing?

The Sustainable Development Goals make explicit reference to indigenous peoples and to the imperative of their sustained and inclusive development.   For the sake of fulfilment of the Agenda’s promise, the absence of data must not remain a stumbling block. One way to fill the data gap - and help ensure no one is left behind - is to build in indigenous community-based monitoring as a complement to traditional data collection by States.  

Most importantly of course, decisive rights-based action is needed and that is owed to indigenous peoples the world over.

Myriad recommendations for implementation of the Declaration have been issued by different bodies, international, regional and national. It is not as if we do not know what needs to be done.  Evidence has been gathered even though we need more; voices have been upraised, even if they should be further amplified; situations have been assessed even though more participation by indigenous peoples in these analyses is need, recommendations have been issued: implementation for and with indigenous peoples – including for and with young people - is the path that must be followed. The new mandate of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples specifically emphasises follow-up with States on implementing recommendations from all human rights bodies. And that - like this panel and it interactive dialogue - is an opportunity not to be squandered.

Thank you for your kind attention.