Annual panel discussion on the rights of indigenous peoples
Statement by UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore
39th Session of the Human Rights Council
19 September 2018
It is an honor to join the distinguished panellists for the purpose of underscoring the urgency of full inclusion of indigenous peoples in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Implementation of the Right to Development is brought alive up to 2030 by the sustainable development agenda – extraordinary in its vision and in the scope of commitments that stand behind it. At its heart, however, it is – first and foremost – a promise to people themselves: a promise of global effort to lift people out of poverty, persecution and powerlessness; a global promise to combat inequality among people; a global commitment to a prosperity for people that is sustainable for our planet – as a place of human habitat, human heritage and human coexistence with earth’s rich but threatened biodiversity.
Assembled by acclamation through the General Assembly, the SDGs are an acknowledgement that development without people as its core beneficiaries is not development, merely economy; that development lining the pockets of the rich and leaving behind those who have the least is not development but a corruption, morally at least, if not corruption in law; that development that destroys traditional culture, language, land and human heritage is not development – it is willful destruction.
Defining under what terms development is neither destruction nor exclusion has many metrics and many thresholds – but in each, human rights standards and norms are key and for all, it is the impact on people’s daily lives matters most.
Nowhere is this clearer than with regards to the world’s indigenous peoples. The starting blocks for that journey to 2030 are clearly defined by their current social and economic standing: while but five per cent of the world’s population are indigenous, near to a third of the world’s extremely poor rural people – the most left behind – are indigenous – over 30 per cent!
First nations are not merely left out of enjoyment of development’s fruits, they are more often development’s first casualties. Rapacious developers, on the one hand, and misanthropic conservation efforts on the other, eat away at indigenous peoples’ dignity and rights; at their traditional ways of life, practices and subsistence; eroding too our human heritage.
In development’s disregard for the rights of original land owners, first nations are more often rendered last persons: the last to be heard, the last to be included, to be consulted, or to be compensated; the last to such an extent, that in the context and cause of “development” efforts, indigenous peoples’ traditional activities may even be prohibited; may be met with the human rights violations of impunity, arbitrary detention, disappearances, violence, even assassination.
The global inequalities that the 2030 Agenda is committed to ending are witnessed at their worst in indigenous communities; the 370 million indigenous people, spread across some 70 countries, are the living example of the world’s most disadvantaged, most marginalised, most left behind people.
We recall that the SDGs do not merely commit to leaving no one behind; their pledge is to reach the furthest behind first.
So many of those “furthest behind” are indigenous peoples. It surely means that the 2030 Agenda will not be fulfilled unless we fulfil the rights of indigenous peoples. So how should this look in practice, in each country?
Three dimensions are important to highlight, among others:
- Measure more
To close a gap effectively, we must first estimate its size. However, there are too little data on the situation of indigenous peoples to be confident that our estimates of progress in elevating their social economic and political status are indeed evidence based. States must work to quantify the challenge and assign commensurate resources for this and for then reporting on measurable progress. Data collection must be human-rights based – how it is collected and on what it is collected matters: data collection and interpretation must be participatory, and it must respect people’s self-identification.
Indigenous communities must be empowered, and the voices of indigenous peoples amplified. Not as tokenism, nor as mere ticking of a box but as the basis of full, transparent, and meaningful participation in, and consultation about development, for that is the only sure route to equality. All States should ensure indigenous peoples are full participants in the 2030 development Agenda strategies, decision-making and review processes, including in the voluntary review processes. A strong relationships between government agencies and indigenous peoples is necessary as the SDGs are incorporated more fully into national plans and budgets.
Government actors further should promote indigenous community-based monitoring and information systems, and provide resources for indigenous peoples’ participation in the SDG processes nationally and internationally.
Globally, there is welcome progress in this direction: for example, in the form of sustained participation by indigenous peoples at the High Level Political Forum. But fulfilment of obligations to the empowerment, inclusion and participation of indigenous peoples as equal partners is essential at the national and local levels.
- Protection is essential
There are today State and non-State actors who invest great effort not to empower indigenous peoples but instead to silence, punish – even criminalize – indigenous human rights defenders. From public rhetoric denouncing and diminishing their rights, claims and representatives to wrongful deployment of such as anti-terrorism laws to limit their civil society freedoms and restrict their access to foreign funding; from denial of access to justice, including the right to fair trial, to impunity for violence against indigenous activists.
And yet it is a responsibility of States to protect indigenous human rights defenders; to ensure they can act freely without fear of intimidation, harassment or violence including by freely engaging with the United Nations, without fear of reprisal. When indigenous human rights defenders are threatened, we in the United Nations must recognize that, for it is also our duty to work on avenues for human rights defenders protection.
For millenia, indigenous peoples have been wise stewards of their lands, territories and resources. Their accumulated knowledge of sustainable environmental practices can contribute to achieving global goals on consumption, climate change, oceans, terrestrial ecosystems and for sustainable production. We have much to learn from indigenous peoples about sustainable food production, resilient agricultural practices, and protection of genetic diversity within farming.
Yet, over many many decades, in the development context the contributions of indigenous communities have been diminished and discounted. A broader view of history and a longer term view of our planet’s future reveals by contrast the gifts of indigenous leadership, know-how and of the human heritage that indigenous culture and language manifest and protects. This irreplaceable, renewable precious human energy for inclusive sustainable development must not be extinguished. Upholding the rights of indigenous people is not only necessary if no one is to be left behind, it is essential for the fuller potential, capacity and contribution of all peoples to be released for the purpose of sustainable inclusive development.
States seeking ways to advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the context of the 2030 Agenda will find a wealth of guidance in recommendations by the Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review, as well as the Office of the High Commissioner.