Indigenous Peoples can lead us all through the turbulence and risks of our era, Türk says
17 July 2023
Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
16th session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Distinguished delegates and friends,
Advancing the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and protecting and amplifying their voices, is an essential part of human rights work.
In my missions earlier this year to Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Kenya, I met with many representatives of Indigenous Peoples, so that I could listen to their concerns.
I heard in painful detail about the unprincipled and devastating impact of extractive industries on their environment and rights.
Their dispossession from ancestral lands, and the militarization of their territories.
I heard about the impact of the climate crisis. About the scope and impact of systemic discrimination and exclusion.
These violations must stop.
Overall, there are estimated to be 476 million members of Indigenous Peoples, across all regions of the world. Yet although they constitute 6.2 per cent of the world’s population, discrimination, exclusion, dispossession, and exploitation mean that Indigenous Peoples account for 18.2 per cent of the world’s poor, according to the ILO.
And yet, with tremendous dignity and resilience that draw from generation upon generation of wisdom and skill, Indigenous Peoples survive – and thrive.
I think again of the remarkable experience of the four Huitoto children whose mother died in the crash of an airplane in the Colombia rainforest last month. How could these young children survive, alone – one of them a one-year old baby – for 40 days without adequate supplies or guidance?
But they did have guidance.
The older children were able to hark back to the lessons of their mother and grandmother. They knew that it was possible to understand the rainforest, and to co-exist with its animals and plants, despite the risks.
I am profoundly inspired by their story. It shows that the knowledge of our ancestors – especially, Indigenous ancestors – contains many lessons for the modern world, as we navigate the growing turbulence and extraordinary risks of our era.
And within that knowledge, the story of the Huitoto children points especially to the traditions and skills of Indigenous women -- as the repositories and teachers of wisdom; and as the ones who are most likely to carry and sustain the chain of culture between past generations and the communities and families of today.
We see this very clearly in the context of climate change.
Climate change is a global crisis, but its effects are unequally distributed. Indigenous Peoples are among the first and the worst affected by extreme weather, loss of biodiversity and dwindling natural resources. They are often pushed into vulnerable situations, despite or because of their close ties to the land and its resources.
This is especially the case for Indigenous women, because of their specific relationships with the environment, and the additional marginalization they face for being both women and Indigenous. We know they are disproportionally hard-hit by climate damage and the unprincipled development of megaprojects.
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with 45 Indigenous leaders from 30 countries – the largest ever cohort of participants in the Indigenous Fellowship Programme organized by my Office. The damage being wrought by climate change was among the topics they spoke about most intensely.
“As the ice melts, our culture and the way of living dies”, one participant from Greenland memorably said.
That is not only true of Indigenous cultures and ways of living. It is true for all of us. All human beings must share this planet fairly, and with respect. It is our only way forward. Indigenous Peoples can help to lead humanity on that path, as indispensable partners in developing solutions to avert, minimize and remedy the human rights harm caused by our triple planetary crisis.
You have come to this 16th session of the EMRIP from all parts of the world, thanks in part to support from the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples that my Office administers.
I very much hope that we will see increasing opportunities for Indigenous Peoples to participate in the work of the United Nations, including in the Human Rights Council.
Because you have a right to make your voices heard. Because you have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect you, through representatives chosen by you according to your procedures. And because your voices are deeply valuable to every aspect of our work to advance human rights.
From the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment to the right to equality; from your right to self-determination, to your right to be fully and meaningfully consulted, and to give free, prior and informed consent to legislative or administrative measures that may affect you. Every aspect of our human rights efforts gains in strength from your activism and your contributions. The world can learn from your wisdom of being good ancestors and taking into account the rights and interests of future generations.
We need to make sure that your work is safe. Even within this Mechanism, there have been reports of reprisals against Indigenous defenders. And on the ground, the number and severity of reprisal attacks are shocking. According to a recent report by Front Line Defenders, land activists, Indigenous Peoples and environmental rights defenders were the groups most frequently targeted with violence and threats in 2022.
There must be stronger efforts by national, regional and global institutions to protect you and your work from attack. We also need to amplify your voices, to ensure that all of us can listen to your knowledge and to the messages and solutions that you contribute.
We need your guidance and your help.
We need you to be present and listened to at COP 28, in Dubai later this year.
We need you at this Council's Universal Periodic Reviews. At Treaty Body meetings. At the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.
We need your voices to be fully audible in every relevant national, regional and global conversation.
“Nothing about us without us” must become a reality.
Thirty years ago, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action urged “States to ensure the full and free participation of indigenous people in all aspects of society, in particular in matters of concern to them”.
All human rights are of concern to Indigenous Peoples. And it is time, now, to ensure that they can fully, freely, and safely participate. It is time now, to move beyond discussion and towards concrete and specific action to protect Indigenous rights.