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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Opening remarks by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

20 July 2015

20 July 2015

Dear colleagues and friends,

It gives me great pleasure to open this 8th session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and to welcome you all.

We are coming together at a key moment – a period of a few short months during which the world has the opportunity to change direction, and adopt a new agenda for sustainable development, firmly rooted in human rights. Last week, in Addis Abeba, the Financing for Development Conference grappled with the key question of how States will pay for the Sustainable Development Goals that will benefit all of us. In two months' time, the Special Summit on Sustainable Development will commit to a global agenda that promises to prioritise the fight against inequality and ‘leave no one behind.’ In December, we have a chance to limit climate change.

Together, these events bring unprecedented hope that we can set our planet on a course of greater inclusion; more sustained prosperity; more justice; more human rights; and a far more secure environment. As Amartya Sen writes, development means greater freedom; it should not mean greater exploitation. True development incorporates and advances human rights. Many indigenous people are exploited; they are caught in the poverty trap – and as we all know, that is not just an economic trap but a political and structural one.

We can dismantle it. But to do so, it will be vital to ensure that throughout the key negotiations that will take place this year – and well beyond them – due emphasis is given, at last, to the rights and to the voices of indigenous peoples.

Virtually all indigenous peoples have suffered oppression, marginalisation and exploitation in history, and too often, their rights, including their right to self-determination, continue to be trampled and ignored today. Discrimination in employment opportunities, in education, in access to justice and in fundamental services deny them a fair start in life and deprive them of access to power. Bigotry subjects them to degrading stereotypes, and others often assume that they can or should make decisions for indigenous peoples. As a result, indigenous communities are massively excluded from public life, and are often chronically marginalised.

In particular, decisions are often forcibly imposed on indigenous peoples in the context of a rush to profit from natural resources, when governments and business interests seem to regard traditional land users as an inconvenience, or a hindrance to economic growth, without regard for their rights. In recent years, the massively increasing operations of extractive industries and industrial-scale agriculture have led to shocking violations of indigenous peoples' right to land and right to a clean environment, as well as to the principle of their free, prior and informed consent. Far too often, these corporations and officials escape accountability.

Violation of land rights often also erode indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage, which may be deeply interwoven with their land and environment. In addition, across the world, the loud march of dominant languages and cultures trample indigenous peoples' right to cultural heritage and identity, extinguishing ancient cultures that have profoundly enriched humanity.

Although globalisation may benefit many people in the world, a thoughtless and irresponsible approach to economic growth comes at a high price – and too often that price is paid by indigenous peoples. There is an alarming lack of solid data on the socio-economic situation of indigenous peoples, but it is clear that they suffer disproportionately from chronic poverty, blocked opportunities, preventable diseases and premature death. Although our technological innovations are breath-taking, and our scientific advances accelerate every day, millions of indigenous people still live and die in hunger – many of them after they have been forced off their lands and into deprived and blighted urban areas.  

In all this, indigenous women have often been the most excluded among the excluded – frequent targets of multiple discrimination and violence.

Against this grim backdrop, there is growing recognition that we must fulfil the promise of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other human rights commitments – both at the international level, and within many countries.  Last September, at the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, States committed themselves to real action to address the impact of major development projects on indigenous peoples; boost the participation of indigenous peoples; and to step up work to combat violence against indigenous women, among other long-overdue measures to advance human rights of indigenous peoples.  

It has been almost a year now since that first World Conference: time to begin taking stock. Are we finally living up to the promise of the Declaration? Or are we sinking back into business as usual?

Some promising new initiatives are underway. El Salvador has recognized indigenous peoples in its constitution, and in Australia we see strong bipartisan support for similar constitutional recognition of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Islanders. In Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has issued a landmark report on the devastating impact of residential schools on indigenous children, and their cultural heritage, across generations. That report made a number of valuable recommendations that we hope to see followed-up with swift action.

The Expert Mechanism’s survey of practical measures taken to implement the Declaration, which was prepared for this session, highlights several other examples. But it also shows all too clearly that such measures are still too rare. For example, one important element of the Outcome Document of the World Conference was the commitment to draw up new action plans to implement the Declaration. Few States have done so.

At the international level, we also need to do much better. We must practice what we preach. The Secretary General has urged more attention to indigenous peoples’ participation in the UN. Their representative bodies need to have direct access – not only through NGOs, but in their own right – to UN debates where their rights are at stake.

My Office works in a range of ways to advance indigenous peoples' rights, from headquarters to our 64 field presences. And whether we are working on land titles in Cambodia, enhancing the legislative framework in Republic of the Congo, boosting access to justice in Guatemala or leading inter-agency work within the UN, one major lesson we have learned is that the involvement of indigenous peoples is a fundamental pre-condition for real impact.

Even international initiatives with the finest objectives can go wrong if indigenous peoples they intend to assist are treated as mere objects, instead of being included as true partners. The Expert Mechanism study on cultural heritage which you will discuss during this session includes numerous examples of cases where the exclusion of indigenous peoples from decisions concerning cultural heritage sites have resulted in serious harm for the indigenous peoples concerned.

You will also be discussing later this week the human rights of indigenous peoples in relation to business enterprises. I would like to emphasise my commitment to encouraging both States and the UN to work much harder to ensure that businesses everywhere – including transnational corporations – respect human rights recognised in national and international law, among them the rights of indigenous peoples.

In these and other crucial areas, capacity building is fundamental. Activists for the rights of indigenous peoples often function in a landscape of violence, threats and poverty so harsh that it thwarts their ability to act. They need and deserve our protection and support. My Office is proud to support a number of programmes, including our fellowship programme. I'm delighted to see the 2015 OHCHR fellows here. You represent great hope. I note of course that both EMRIP and the Permanent Forum are led by former OHCHR fellows.

The Expert Mechanism is doing excellent work. But its studies are often ignored in policy-making, and its impact on the ground remains limited. At the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, Member States recognized that the mandate of the Expert Mechanism needs to be improved, so that it can more effectively promote respect for the Declaration.

The Human Rights Council has been tasked with this work, and various proposals have already been made, including that the Expert Mechanism prepare an annual global report on the status of implementation of the Declaration, and that it should support follow up to the recommendations made by human rights mechanisms on indigenous peoples.

But reviews of mandates will go only so far; they need to be coupled with true commitment to follow-up on recommendations and commitments, together with indigenous peoples. We need action – principled action which demonstrates that our resolve to advance the rights of indigenous peoples is not a matter of empty rhetoric, but real.