A Novice at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

A First Hand Perspective

Through VIVAT International I had the privilege of taking part in the Ninth Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  Previously I had no experience of the UN, nor of any of the seemingly countless UN agencies.  My presence at the session was meant to be a learning experience, and it certainly was that.  For the most part I participated in the “side events”.  On a practical level my long experience in South Africa, both during and after Apartheid, gave me some insight into what was being discussed.

The first thing I noticed was the bewildering complexity of the UN agencies.  I was not prepared to encounter the multitude of inter-related bodies whose functions and the issues that they deal with seem to overlap and intertwine.  For example, most of the issues that were addressed at the Forum on Indigenous Peoples came up again, although from a broader perspective, at the 18th Session of the Committee on Sustainable Development.

The second thing that came to my attention was the immense amount of information freely available through UN-sponsored studies and reports.  Just in case that is not enough, the many NGOs that work in conjunction with the UN or are in ongoing dialogue with its many agencies make available their own analyses, case studies and projections.  One could educate oneself with regard to countless realities of our world just by perusing documents available through the UN.

The third thing that broke into my awareness was the enormous opportunity for global dialogue in UN-sponsored events.  People from all over the world, of every ethnic and linguistic group, of many different political persuasions and philosophical or even ideological perspectives were able to speak to each other politely and respectfully.  Victims of various forms of injustice were able to make known their suffering to those able to do something about it.  Possibly I am too inexperienced to be aware of the “political games” that were surely being played at times, but I seemed to see many sincere and dedicated people whose good will was patent and whose considerable expertise was placed unselfishly at the service of the common good.

The primary issue addressed at the Permanent Forum was how to improve the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with a focus on fostering sustainable development while protecting indigenous cultures and identities.  This broad theme involved advancing the status and rights of women, preventing human trafficking, addressing the needs of children and youth, obtaining free, prior and informed consent with regard to all projects directly affecting indigenous peoples, and dealing with environmental issues such as climate change and bio-diversity.

I came away from this initial experience with great hope.  Despite the limits of the UN and the seriousness and extent of the problems that must be faced, progress can be made and is being made, thanks to the efforts of so very many dedicated people.