Indigenous Peoples Denounce Exclusion in Durban
By Thalif Deen*
The 73-page draft Program of Action that is to be adopted by the Conference against Racism has just eight paragraphs on the situation of native peoples around the world.
UNITED NATIONS - The World Conference against Racism, which got underway last Friday in Durban, South Africa, was not only preceded by contentious issues like Zionism and reparations for slavery, the matter of indigenous peoples rights has entered the fray as well.
Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, admits that the world's 400 million indigenous peoples continue to suffer despite the progress made over the last decade.
Robinson, who is also the secretary-general of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which runs through September 7, points out that while a number of states have taken legal and other measures to recognize the identity and rights of indigenous peoples, ''the evidence suggests that attitudes have changed only marginally.''
''There is much that remains to be done,'' to recognize and respect the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide, she insists.
The High Commissioner is convinced that the Durban conference, will ''provide an opportunity to take stock of what has been done to date, and what strategies need to be devised'' to address the problem.
But indigenous leaders do not seem to share Robinson's optimism on that point.
Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel Peace Laureate from Guatemala, has complained that the Durban conference ''threatens to leave out the main demands and vindications'' of indigenous peoples, and would thus be ''a new expression of discrimination and exclusion.''
She believes that indigenous peoples, along with Africans and Afro-Americans, should be entitled to present their demands for the injustices perpetrated against them by past colonial rulers.
Menchú, who also represents the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as its Ambassador for a Culture of Peace, argues that the world's new colonialists impose new conditions of marginalization, aggravate inequality, accelerate the raping of natural resources, and destroy the Earth's natural habitats.
The preparatory process leading up to the Durban conference was mired in controversy over a wide range of issues, including xenophobia, racial and gender discrimination, caste, the rights of indigenous people, treatment of refugees and migrants, and the exploitation of women and children.
The two most contentious issues on the agenda, however, are reparations for past slavery and colonialism (opposed by the United States and former colonial powers such as Britain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain) and the racist policies of Israel in occupied territories (opposed by the United States and Israel).
The US State Department said that if these two issues were not dropped from the agenda, Secretary of State Colin Powell would not attend the conference. Last-minute attempts to tone down the wording on those matters in the draft document failed, so Powell stayed home and Washington sent only a low-level delegation.
The United States and former European colonial powers are even refusing to tender a public apology for slavery and colonial exploitation because they fear that this could be used later in a court of law to extract compensation by past victims of slavery and colonialism, including indigenous peoples.
Robinson admits there should be ''a collective recognition of the terrible exploitation and violations of human rights and crimes against humanity of the past… I see great merit in a willingness to have that recognition in the form of an apology.''
A 73-page draft Program of Action that is to be adopted in Durban has just eight paragraphs on indigenous peoples.
The document calls on UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to conduct an evaluation on the results of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004) and to make recommendations concerning how to mark the end of the Decade, including an appropriate follow-up.
The conference is also to ask states to ensure adequate funding for an operational framework and a firm basis for the future development of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues within the UN system.
Additionally, it will call upon governments to conclude negotiations on, and approve as soon as possible, the text of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, currently under discussion by a Working Group of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
The document also urges government, financial and development institutions to mitigate the negative effects of globalization by examining how their related policies and practices affect indigenous peoples.
These institutions have been asked to assign particular priority to, and allocate sufficient funding for improving the living standards of indigenous peoples.
A 41-page Draft Declaration, which is also expected to be adopted at the conference, only makes a passing reference to one of the more sensitive issues relating to indigenous peoples: land.
The text reads: "We recognize the special relationship that indigenous peoples have with the land as the basis of their spiritual, physical and cultural existence and encourage states, wherever possible, to ensure that indigenous peoples are able to retain ownership of their lands and of those natural resources to which they are entitled under domestic law."
Ted Moses, Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees in Quebec, Canada, said that indigenous peoples have been allowed only a very limited role within the United Nations.
He said natives had great difficulty accessing the preparatory meetings for the conference. "Just trying to get into the room where consultations were being held during the preparatory process was an uphill battle", he noted.
Native interests, he pointed out, have been ''seriously excluded'' in such areas as economic development and peacekeeping, but in particular, indigenous peoples are not being adequately represented at the Durban conference, Chief Moses said.
* Thalif Deen is an IPS correspondent.