The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) is a relatively new UN entity, which discusses issues of indigenous peoples around the world. The mandate of the Forum deals with indigenous issues such as culture, education, health, human rights, and social and economic development. The Forum works as an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) by providing recommendations, raising awareness within the UN community, and gathering information on indigenous issues. In May 2012, the UNPFII met for its annual two-week session at the United Nations in New York to discuss this year’s special theme: The Doctrine of Discovery: its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests (articles 28 and 37 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).
In writing this article, I had the opportunity to interview Sister Mary Corbett, CND, a strong advocate for indigenous issues, who attended this year’s session. Sister Corbett began by explaining that the 15th century Doctrine of Discovery, has had disastrous effects on the world’s indigenous peoples. “It had become institutionalized in law and policy, at national and international levels, generating levels of dehumanization and dominance, which still negatively affect all aspects of the rights and lives of indigenous peoples to this day.”
When asked what indigenous groups are the most vulnerable today, Sister Corbett indicated that effects are present in both developed and developing countries; she identified extractive industries as the source of the most severe impacts. A telling example is the Tar Sands in Canada. However, the highest incidence of extraction of rich natural resources globally is found in the territories of indigenous people in developing countries, where corruption and/or weak governance is often more prevalent. She has witnessed firsthand the negative impact of extractive industries on indigenous peoples in Guatemala where she lived in the 1980s.
Our interview then led us to talk about the Forum itself and its recent session. Sister Corbett described the Forum as being different from ECOSOC commissions because the Forum is composed of both government officials and indigenous peoples themselves. Given the special focus, Sister Corbett explained that, with Rio +20 at our doorstep “we were talking about the future of the planet.” In that regard, the rights of indigenous peoples as upheld in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in ILO Convention 169 were repeatedly emphasized.
At the end of the two-week meeting, a special commemoration celebrated the fifth anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is evident that the Forum is working diligently to find solutions for the multiple challenges facing indigenous peoples. To learn more about the Permanent Forum, please visit their colorful and informative website, which is available in the six official languages of the UN, including English, French, and Spanish: http://social.un.org/index/IndigenousPeoples.aspx.
NGO Office intern