A question of relevance: the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

A question of relevance: the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

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John Ahni Schertow
September 17, 2012

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously agreed to organize a high-level plenary meeting in 2014, to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP).

If all went according to plan, the conference would bring together Indigenous Nations and Nation States “to share perspectives and best practices on the realization of the rights of indigenous peoples and to pursue the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” in the words of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples.

Given the sheer number of indigenous rights-based conflicts around the world–there are over 500, including the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, the Tar Sands in Canada and the systematic suppression of the Peoples of West Papua by the government of Indonesia–such a conference is desperately needed.

The question is: will the conference go according to plan? Will it really provide the space that Indigenous Peoples need to advance their basic rights? Or, will it be turned into yet another UN-sponsored sideshow that accomplishes nothing substantive?

We’re still a couple years away from the actual conference, so it’s too early to say for sure. However, recent developments may provide an answer.

For some time now, work has been underway to draft the modalities resolution for the world conference. It’s a resolution like any other: It outlines the aspirations of the conference, the methods it will use for making decisions, and so on. The document would probably put the average reader to sleep; but that’s not the problem.

Over the last several days, a number of disturbing changes have been made to the draft to accommodate member states at the expense of Indigenous Peoples. It has caused quite the stir among the North American Delegation of the Indigenous Global Coordinating Group* (GCG) which is tasked with coordinating Indigenous participation at the WCIP.

One of the North American Delegates, Debra Harry, who is the Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, was kind enough to outline the more significant areas of concern. She observes:

You can see the changes for yourself in the attachments below.

While the modalities resolution does not deal with any of the substantive issues that need to be worked on at conference, the alterations that Debra Harry outlines severely undermines the best possible outcomes of the conference. By placing approval of the outcome document squarely in the hands of member states, it ensures that the conference will go down the path of every other major UN-sponsored event where Indigenous Peoples have been marginalized and censored.

Kent Lesbock of the Owe Aku International Justice Project (Owe Aku IJP) said it best:

“We hate to say so, but we told you so… The states and their collaborators within the Indigenous caucus had no intention of holding an open, transparent, balanced conference based on the Declaration, human rights of Indigenous peoples or treaties. Do you really think there will be any “outcomes” of value given the nature of the dictatorial modalities and the over-willingness of the GCG to compromise on everything? This conference under the modalities being proposed in this latest version, reduces the participation of Indigenous leaders to tourists in the gallery and denies our existence as peoples and nations. Further participation by any Indigenous nation or support of the demeaning modalities being proposed is nothing less than collaboration with colonial practices and a betrayal of the work of our ancestors and relatives.”

Up until a few weeks ago, Owe Aku IJP was participating in the formation of the long-awaited event. However, after “seeing the writing on the wall,” Owe Aku IJP walked away.

The North American delegation, on the other hand, will likely push on in an effort to salvage what’s left of “the conference that could” but won’t change the commonplace situation of Indigenous Peoples across the globe.

In a statement issued late last night, Debra Harry and Arthur Manuel formally responded to the changes. While taking a more conservative approach, they state unequivocally that “the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus does not accept, endorse or support the draft modalities document transmitted to us … on September 14, 2012.”

Unfortunately, regardless of their opposition, the draft resolution is expected to be approved some time today.


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