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Indigenous people, several millions of them, live in more than 80 countries and have long suffered, and continue to suffer, from injustices. Until 1981, they had no global forum in which to appear to plead for justice and for respect of their inalienable rights.
That year, the director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, a Dutchman named Theodoor van Boven, made a stirring plea to establish a UN forum where indigenous people could appear, tell their plight and request justice.
Under the leadership of van Boven, backed by his special assistant and with support from some members of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights — notably Asbjorn Eide of Norway — the body established a Working Group on Indigenous Peoples to meet five days a year, before the meetings of the Sub-Commission, to listen to requests of indigenous people.
The group first met in August 1982, when more than 150 representatives of indigenous people came to the UN in Geneva, attired in their traditional dress, to tell their stories. They performed rites and dances on the grounds of the Palace of Nations for the occasion.
The presence of the representatives at the UN was perhaps the most emotional moment of its history so far. It was emotional for the indigenous representatives; and it was emotional for the experts and international civil servants who had helped create the working group. These included such people as Leif Dunfjeld, a Sami, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, an indigenous woman from the United States.
The moment had not been an easy passage. Powerful governments the world over were hostile to establishing such a group and continued to stand guard over it for years. This third article in a series based on material from UN human-rights archives highlights how the UN has helped these particular people for decades.
The working group’s first achievement was to record the submissions of indigenous representatives from across the world on their situation and the injustices they suffered. The stories were recorded in the annual reports of the working group and are now a part of history.
The second achievement was to work on drafting a UN declaration on the human rights of indigenous people. This was a protracted process, as powerful governments again sought to restrict the rights of indigenous people. But the efforts succeeded, and in 2007, the General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Twenty-five years after the working group first met, native people finally received a ringing affirmation of their claims for justice.
The UN declaration affirmed that indigenous people have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.
“Indigenous peoples are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular based on their indigenous origin or identity,” the declaration reads. The hearts of indigenous people swelled with recognition of these and other rights.
The third achievement was the working group’s study and affirmation of the validity of treaties that indigenous people had concluded with colonizing governments. UN studies on this topic now constitute a framework for government policies toward those treaties in many countries throughout the world.
The fourth achievement was the case the group made for recognizing the cultural dimensions of development that affect native people. As recognized in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.”
The fifth achievement was the group’s push for a forum in the economic and social sectors of the UN dedicated to promoting development for indigenous people. This culminated in 2002 with the start of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
The forum’s first meeting marked another emotional moment for indigenous people and those who had been working on their issues in the UN Secretariat. At the meeting, an elderly member of a Canadian tribe from the Pacific Northwest addressed the forum in her native language, translating for herself as she went along and inducing tears among the many people who were there because she was the last surviving person who could speak her native language. When she died, the language would disappear from the earth.
The working group operated until 2006, when it was succeeded by a special rapporteur, or investigator, on indigenous rights. Without the UN human-rights program, indigenous people would not have been able to enter the halls of the UN to air their grievances and to seek justice.
Thank you, United Nations, for bringing the voice of indigenous people to the attention of the world and for helping the cause of indigenous people.