“Take action! Being silent is dangerous.”

“If you know something, you can’t un-know it, there is a responsibility that comes with it,” said Charlene Apok, an indigenous peoples’ rights activist from the USA. “You have to take action. Being silent is very dangerous.”

The desire to do something is what brought Apok to Geneva as a participant in this year’s 2016 Indigenous Fellowship Programme at the UN Human Rights Office. The Office launched the Programme to give to participants the opportunity to learn more about the United Nations and how it can assist in the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. When the Fellows return to their communities, they can use this knowledge to help them advance their human rights.

Apok is a member of the Iñupiaq people, who live in the Bering Straits region of Alaska. The main issue the Iñupiaq struggle with is lack of sovereignty over land, and water Apok said. This lack of control has had a ripple effect on many core aspects of their lives and wellbeing.

“We have inherent rights as indigenous peoples and there are entities that try to impede on those rights,” Apok said. “We are the ones burdening the impacts, especially in health from climate change.”

For indigenous peoples living in the Arctic, the effects of climate change are acute. Multinational interests in drilling and shipping negatively impact whales, seals and other sea mammals which are the main source of food. These food sources have become contaminated with organic pollutants. As a result, indigenous peoples in the Arctic suffer ailments ranging from contaminated breast milk to high cancer rates.

“And what are we to do? We don’t have access to other food, nor is Western food healthier for us,” she said. “And when we have built-up frustrations at not being able to provide food for ourselves the way that we always have, in addition to intergenerational historical trauma, these correlate to violence in our communities.”

Apok decided to apply for the fellowship when she realized just how much of her peoples’ struggles were linked to human rights and global politics. She wants to learn how to navigate the international systems and mechanisms for her people, as they are often not represented and their voices are not heard.

“This system was not made for us.” Apok said. “But we are all people and we should be able to access these things. We are also not waiting to be given rights either. That should always be clear. We’re not ‘asking for’ the rights-, we already have them. But our ability to exercise our rights is what’s being hindered.”

An essential first step toward the full enjoyment of rights by the Iñupiaq would be for all States to recognise indigenous peoples and their right to self-determination, Apok said. In addition, she believes an expansion of opportunities for indigenous groups to engage with other actors would give them a better chance to make their voices heard.

28 July 2016

The story is one of a series to celebrate The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 9 August 2016. This year the celebration is devoted to the right of education, which is protected by a number of international human rights instruments.

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