7 May 2012

Press Conference on Opening of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

7 May 2012
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Opening of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues


The enduring impact of historical wrongs must be a priority for States as they reviewed their relationships with indigenous groups, emphasized leaders and activists at a Headquarters press conference marking the opening today of the eleventh annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

This year, the Permanent Forum, which is slated to run until 18 May, has as its special theme the “Doctrine of Discovery” — a term used to describe the way in which courts historically justified the annexing of indigenous lands — as well as the subsequent right to redress.  Speaking on those issues today were Bienvenu Okiemy, Minister of Communications and Relations with the Parliament of the Republic of the Congo; Grand Chief Ed John, a lawyer, Canadian indigenous activist and Chairperson of the Permanent Forum; Megan Davis, Rapporteur of the Permanent Forum and Director of the Indigenous Law Centre of Australia’s University of New South Wales; and Tonya Frichner, a lawyer and Native American activist from the Onondaga Nation and former member of the Permanent Forum.  (See also Press Release HR/5086)

States around the world were currently revising their constitutional provisions with regard to indigenous groups, noted several speakers.  Among them was the Congo, said Mr. Okiemy, noting that between 3 and 10 per cent of his country’s population had indigenous heritage.  The country’s many development efforts would not succeed without considering that population, he stressed, adding, “the basis for the Congo is a unified country”.  In that context, the country had adopted a 2010 law promoting the rights of indigenous people, as well as a law that guaranteed indigenous peoples the right to govern their own lands.  It was also working to improve access to social services and education, which should be adapted to the ways of life of indigenous peoples.

With regard to health, the Congo was working with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to address issues such as HIV/AIDS, which affected indigenous people disproportionately.  Campaigns had long been under way to raise awareness and educate indigenous populations about HIV prevention, as well as to make health care more accessible.  Moreover, he said, development required a population that was educated, healthy and aware of its rights.  The country’s new laws were extremely important, as they also went a step forward to counter discrimination; in addition, it was working to harmonize its national human rights laws with international norms.  “We hope to be an example for other countries in Africa” in that respect, he said.

Mr. John agreed that the concept of human rights for indigenous peoples was especially important in Africa, where there had long been a myth that there were no indigenous peoples.  The matter went to the heart of the session’s current theme, the “Doctrine of Discovery”.  In that vein, it was critical to understand historical precedents and justifications, in order to better understand their implications for indigenous peoples.  Through the Doctrine of Discovery, for example, indigenous people had been considered inferior; as a result, a process of “civilization” and “Christianization” had begun.  “Our cultures were supposed to die, our languages were supposed to die,” he said.

“We hope the words we say here [at the Permanent Forum] will make a difference to our people,” he continued, noting that the Forum was an opportunity to tell the stories of indigenous peoples and discuss their collective future.  The session’s agenda was very full, he added, and its planned discussions were extremely relevant to the 360 million indigenous people around the world.

Ms. Davis said that the Forum was expected to hear interventions from States relating to their reconciliation processes with indigenous people.  Various studies would be presented, including one on constitutional revisions aimed at recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights.  The study found that several States were undergoing such a process, including Bangladesh, New Zealand and Australia.

Another study would be presented on violence against indigenous women, a topic on which an expert group meeting had been held earlier in the year at the United Nations, she noted.  Meanwhile, related studies would reveal the extent to which violence against indigenous women and girls was present in various communities.  “Often, there is an emphasis on the violence committed by the State against indigenous women and children,” she said in that regard; however, it should also be noted that a large share of violence was committed within indigenous communities themselves.  The Forum would also consider innovative steps through which indigenous women and men were working to combat that.

Ms. Frichner said that the “Doctrine of Discovery” had really been a “doctrine of discrimination”.  It was fundamentally incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it was manifested as violence against indigenous people.  Moreover, she stressed, “these effects are not just historical, but they are ongoing” within many legal systems around the world.  Indeed, there had been an 1823 United States Supreme Court decision — known as Johnson v McIntosh — in which the court had discussed in detail its decision that indigenous peoples did not have the right of land ownership.  That decision had laid the groundwork for many United States laws, she said.  More research was needed on how those historical precedents had affected indigenous lands, rights, health conditions and other outcomes.

The panellists also responded to a series of questions, which included one about whether revising historical land rights would, in effect, change the “entire map of the world”.  In response, Ms. Frishner said that the idea was not to change existing countries — “we would never ask our neighbours to move” — but about garnering respect for laws protecting indigenous land rights, she said.

Responding to a question about the degradation of former indigenous lands, Mr. John described condominium sites and other construction projects in which indigenous remains had been found, saying that such practical considerations must be dealt with.  Indigenous people were further concerned about major ecological disasters on their lands — land on which many still had no rights, including to protect them.  . Land treaties must be respected, and new treaties negotiated, in order to “keep a balance” when it came to land development.

Another correspondent requested more information about countries that were currently readdressing the concept of the Doctrine of Discovery.  That Doctrine had allowed for colonization, responded Mr. John, adding that other historical treaties — some of which respected the rights of indigenous peoples — had been ignored for generations.  Those treaties should be recognized and enforced today, he said, and the matter of redress should continue to be explored.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.