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Indigenous issues at the Permanent Forum and the General Assembly

Statements by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at the 17th session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the General Assembly’s informal hearing on “Enhancing the participation of indigenous peoples’ representatives and institutions in meetings of relevant United Nations bodies on issues affecting them”.*
New York, 17 and 18 April 2018.


Excellencies, colleagues,

The rights of indigenous peoples in many places around the world are today at best unmet, and often under active threat. That is why we are very grateful to the President of the General Assembly for organising this important meeting and for his other efforts.

The participation of indigenous peoples in UN processes has increased since the early 80s when the UN formally began work on this topic. Their participation has been recognised not only as a clear right, but also as a valuable contribution to our common understanding of some vital global issues.

Since its adoption by the General Assembly just over a decade ago, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been recognized as embodying global standards in this area. It has informed constitutions, policies, and regional and national law. However, as is the case with all too many UN declarations and resolutions, there are major gaps in its implementation. How to close this gap over the next decade?

This is what we at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights are working to do with the UN treaty bodies, as well as at national level. In settings as diverse as Mexico, Cambodia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few, our colleagues on the ground are working to contribute to indigenous peoples’ rights through capacity-building, monitoring, technical cooperation for law and policy-making and support to strategic litigation, among other initiatives.

In the UN human rights system, we are fortunate to have the Special Rapporteur, the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights (EMRIP) and the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples.

The theme of this session, “indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources,” is absolutely central, not only in and of itself, but also as a vehicle for the protection and fulfilment of other rights. In particular, indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and cultures, cannot be sustained if their collective rights to their lands and resources are not adequately protected.

Frequently, “consultations” with indigenous peoples are mere pro forma exercises and the principle of free, prior and informed consent is neglected in both law and practice. Our focus should be on those whose lives may be devastated by ill-conceived projects resulting from the lack of proper consultations. Indigenous peoples are also habitually overlooked when it comes to deriving benefits from business and development ventures. We must be guided by the idea that the purpose of development is to increase well-being throughout society, rather than increasing profit for a few individuals at the expense of entire communities.

Here in New York, we have worked for over a decade with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which has been a very useful tool in raising awareness of their issues. Moreover, the Paris agreement acknowledged the important contribution of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change.

In recent years, the UN system has sought to create a space so that the expertise of indigenous peoples can play its proper part in our work. This effort is about making the UN inclusive of indigenous peoples’ representative institutions. We welcome the call for regional consultations by the General Assembly last year as an opportunity to ensure that the views of as many indigenous communities as possible, including women and youth groups, are fully considered in every effort made to advance this agenda.

Institutions of indigenous peoples manifest themselves in a number of forms – as federations of peoples, autonomous governments and parliaments, community-based decision-making bodies and other groups. While some States formally recognise these institutions, others do not. Our challenge lies in ensuring that regardless of their status in their own countries, they must have the ability to participate in UN processes. Should we fail in this, we will miss out on hearing the voices of indigenous peoples’ representatives from all regions of the world.

Against this backdrop, we find the current trend of violence against indigenous defenders in many countries to be profoundly troubling, including against representatives trying to defend their ancestral lands and their local environment several of whom have been threatened, brutally assaulted, and in many cases killed.

I would like to underline the widespread intimidation and reprisals against indigenous peoples, including those who cooperate with the UN. It has come to our attention that simply by speaking to the UN, or attending UN events, individuals expose themselves to additional risk. Penalising indigenous representatives for communicating with the UN is a flagrant violation of human rights. Such acts are intended to stop people from speaking out, and to send a message to warn others from doing so in the future.
 A few weeks ago, I held a regional consultation with human rights defenders in South-East Asia, some of the victims themselves. There the specific targeting of indigenous communities in the region was highlighted. Noting that this is a problem worldwide, both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly took a strong stance against reprisals in 2017.

When incidents of reprisals happen, this information should reach us. We are documenting cases and I raise them with Governments concerned. We urge victims from indigenous communities to communicate cases to our confidential email address (reprisals@ohchr.org). We will soon be sending out a call for submissions for this year’s Secretary-General’s report on reprisals, which I will present in September at the Human Rights Council. It is important that the experience of indigenous peoples who have been targeted for claiming their rights by engaging with the UN is properly reflected.

I would like to take the opportunity to underline what an honour it is for me to share the platform with Special Rapporteur, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. She and her superb work on indigenous peoples have recently been shamefully vilified by her own Government. This is in fact part of a worrying trend; whereby a number of Governments seem to be adopting a new tactic for trying to silence human rights defenders, justifying it with the calumny that defending the rights of people is somehow tantamount to terrorism. This is a twisted logic and perversion of truth worthy of Orwell’s “1984” and is a trend that the entire human rights movement needs to mobilize against.

It should go without saying that “we the peoples” (the opening words of the UN Charter) must include indigenous peoples; that “leaving no one behind” (the catch phrase of the Sustainable Development Goals) must include indigenous peoples; and that the term “non-discrimination” must include indigenous peoples. It is essential that we all do more to show that we truly understand that.

Thank you.

* This text merges two statements the ASG for Human Rights delivered in New York at two different events on the rights of indigenous peoples on 17th and 18th April.