New York, 13 May 2002

Louise Fréchette  Photo Credit: UN/DPI Photo by Eskinder Debebe
Louise Fréchette

Mr. President, [of ECOSOC]
[Mr. Malloch Brown,]
[Ms. Tibaijuka,]
[Ms. Robinson,]
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to join you on a truly historic day for the world's indigenous peoples and for the United Nations.

I would like to thank Mr. Sid Hill for that beautiful and very moving traditional welcome. Mr. Hill is the Tadodaho, or spiritual leader - a title believed to date back 1,000 years -- of the six nations that make up the Haudenosaunee People [of North America].

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is a milestone in the struggle of thousands of indigenous peoples to win recognition of their rights and identities. We should give credit first and foremost to indigenous peoples themselves for coming together behind the idea of a Forum. Next, the Economic and Social Council - and in particular those members that long argued for greater participation of indigenous peoples in the United Nations -- deserves congratulations for its visionary decision to establish the Forum. And last but not least, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and her staff deserve praise for their hard work.

This moment has been a long time coming. In the 1920s, Native Americans approached the League of Nations, but were met with indifference. Early efforts within the UN system achieved similarly little result until the 1950s, when the International Labour Organization became one of the most staunch defenders of indigenous rights. For far too long, indigenous peoples were justified in saying that their voices were smothered by the darkness of intolerance and neglect. From now on, this Forum will be there to bring their concerns to light.

The world's 300- to 500 million indigenous people are very diverse. Some are hunter-gatherers; others are cosmopolitan city-dwellers. Some are tiny minorities; while others form the majority in their countries. Some live in the world's most developed and powerful countries, others in the remotest, most undeveloped places on earth. But a joint sense of their distinct cultures binds them all.

At the same time, with such extraordinary diversity there is necessarily great complexity. Not all indigenous people share the same priorities; some are concerned primarily with land, others with culture. Nor do all members of each indigenous people share the same point of view. Some may want to preserve, unchanged, their ways of life, while others want to participate fully in the material and cultural life of the societies around them. It would be a mistake to see the world's indigenous peoples as monolithic, or individual indigenous people as uniformly one way or the other. Such an approach only leads to caricature. Like the rest of humankind, like all cultures and civilizations, they are always changing, growing, and adapting themselves to new times and new realities.

One thing indigenous peoples do share is a terrible history of injustice. Indigenous people have been killed, tortured and enslaved. They have been deprived of their political rights, such as the right to vote. Their lands have been taken over by conquest and colonization, or decreed to be terra nullius and claimed for "national" development. Even today, their children too often grow up in poverty, and die from malnutrition and disease. In some countries, indigenous people are still not allowed to study their own languages in schools. Their sacred objects have been stolen and displayed, in violation of their beliefs. They face discrimination and exploitation. And all too often, governments have resisted the use of the word "peoples", with an "s". Instead they have preferred the singular, so as to avoid recognizing collective rights.

This Forum will certainly have its hands full. Questions of self-determination, self-rule, and autonomy raise fundamental issues of sovereignty and the prerogatives of the nation-state. Questions of intellectual property and cultural diversity touch the core of human dignity and identity. Questions of land and resource rights - which make up most of the human rights complaints indigenous peoples bring to the United Nations - are matters of life and death for many of them. Visions of development may clash. Good-faith efforts to ensure that indigenous peoples have full access to the benefits and opportunities of modernization could well collide with equally responsible efforts to preserve some indigenous life-styles.

As you tackle these challenges, I hope you will not only focus on grievances but will also make this Forum a showcase for the many contributions that indigenous peoples can make. The tradition of consensus found among many indigenous peoples can contribute to conflict resolution and good governance. Medicinal knowledge -- discovered, developed and passed from generation to generation by indigenous peoples -- is of enormous value. Likewise, the world has much to learn from indigenous peoples in managing complex ecosystems, promoting biodiversity, increasing crop productivity and conserving land.

Such fruitful interaction between indigenous peoples and the rest of the international community can only proceed, and succeed, if indigenous peoples are secure in their human rights. As yet, however, there are no universal standards on the rights of indigenous peoples as such. The Commission on Human Rights is now studying a draft declaration, and the drafting process has done much to raise awareness. The declaration would not be legally binding. But it would carry considerable moral force, and complement existing international human rights instruments, which do not by themselves cover the full range of indigenous peoples' concerns. I sincerely hope that consensus can be reached in time for the General Assembly to adopt the declaration before 2004, when the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples comes to an end.

Ladies and gentlemen,

An indigenous leader once said, ** "Even though you are in your boat and I in my canoe, we share the same river of life." That is wisdom for the ages. Most of all, it is wisdom for our interdependent era and these troubled times. I wish you every success in your new home here at the United Nations. Thank you very much.


**Quote by Chief Oren Lyons, Onondaga Nation Haudenosaunee speaking in the General Assembly, Inauguration of the UN Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples, 1992

Chief Oren Lyons, 1992 and 2002

UN Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples, 1992 Launch of the UN Permanent Forum, 2002


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