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19 – 23 JULY 2004



Assembly Hall, Monday, 19 JULY 2004

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the twenty-second session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Let me on this occasion express my sincere appreciation for the remarkable accomplishments of this Working Group in the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. This is a unique setting bringing together all relevant actors, including indigenous communities, to discuss matters of common concern from a human rights perspective.

Let me also congratulate the Working Group on its choice of principal theme at this year’s session. You have decided to focus on “Indigenous Populations and conflict resolution and prevention” with a view to deepening our understanding of the issue and learning about successful solutions and best practices. When human rights are not recognised, respected and implemented, an environment of impunity and frustration takes hold and the potential for conflict increases. The Working Group, over its more than 20 years of existence, has played a vital role in creating a space for dialogue, a place where concerns can be shared, where others listen, and sometimes where solutions can be found. I wish you every success in your work this week, as you explore the means to anticipate and avoid conflict and the best methods to resolve it when it unavoidably flares up.

I would also like to welcome the members of the Working Group – Mr. Alfonso Martinez, Mr. Guissé, Ms. Hampson, Ms. Motoc and Mr. Yokota. I also welcome governmental delegations who are an essential part of the dialogue at these annual sessions as well as colleagues from other United Nations organizations, departments and specialized agencies.

It is my pleasure also to welcome to Geneva the many representatives of indigenous peoples, organizations and communities and non-governmental organizations who attend the Working Group in ever increasing numbers each year, making this one of the largest human rights meetings organized by our Office. I am informed that more than 1,000 participants are registered to date.

Some 50 indigenous representatives are participating with the assistance of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations and for those of you who are attending a United Nations meeting for the first time I would like to underline the importance of your contribution to the work of the United Nations. We appreciate very much your participation and indeed are stimulated by the fresh views and perspectives that you bring.

In this respect, I would like to thank the many governments that contribute to the Voluntary Fund and have done so over many years in the belief that indigenous communities have a right to participate fully in the proceedings of the Working Group. May I take this opportunity to urge all Governments to continue to support the Voluntary Fund and its activities in the future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is my first month as High Commissioner for Human Rights and I am meeting the staff of my Office and learning about the many human rights activities being undertaken. I therefore welcome this opportunity to have this first formal contact with indigenous peoples and the States that are active in this very important area of justice and rights.

Let me comment on some of the issues that have been brought to my attention.

In the first place, I would like to share with you my concern about the length of the preparatory process for the declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. Those who know my professional background as a judge would not be surprised by my strong belief in the role of normative frameworks as a tool to resolve problems in different areas of life. This draft, prepared and agreed upon by experts of this Working Group, was submitted to the Commission on Human Rights in 1995. The General Assembly, in proclaiming the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995 – 2004), called upon States to adopt the draft declaration before the end of the Decade in December 2004.

I have been informed that to date the working group set up by the Commission has been able to adopt only 2 of the 45 articles at first reading. That makes the implementation of the General Assembly’s recommendation practically impossible. I would like, therefore, to urge all those who are involved to explore all possibilities to accelerate the process and finalize it as soon as possible. Clear commitments in this regard would be essential. The additional time granted to the working group, including its session to be held from 29 November to 3 December, may facilitate this task.

I know that considerable efforts have been made to bring governmental delegations closer on this issue. I also understand that indigenous representatives, who in the past have been committed to maintaining the original draft, are more open to considering proposals that go in the direction of improving or clarifying the text. I strongly believe that all parties should be prepared to listen and engage in constructive dialogue, and be committed to finding mutually acceptable solutions. In this case, as on many similar occasions, we must embark upon the negotiations with open minds, courage and willingness to accept results that represent a good common approach. I know this takes time and patience. But, time is not unlimited. This is why I say let us find the time to finish the process of drafting the declaration and let us commit to getting the result done within an agreed period.

I can assure you that our Office will continue to offer all its support to this process.

Ladies and gentleman,

The second issue brought to my attention relates to the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People. One of the functions that the High Commissioner assumes when she takes office is the role of Coordinator of the Decade. I come, of course, at the tail end of the ten years, when we are concluding the activities. I would however like to share some thoughts with you.

At its next session, the General Assembly will have before it the report of the Secretary-General reviewing achievements and shortcomings of the Decade. In his report to the Economic and Social Council, the Secretary-General has already drawn attention among others to enhanced international cooperation and the new arrangements, such as the establishment of this Working Group, the Forum for Indigenous issues, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights. Among the shortcomings, the report singles out the slow pace of the drafting process of the Declaration.

I am aware that some governmental delegations, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Advisory Group for the Decade Fund and the Special Rapporteur on indigenous issues are calling for a second Decade. It is my understanding that indigenous peoples support an extension of the Decade. At the same time, there are voices suggesting that UN decades may be replaced by some other type of settings. Whatever framework on indigenous issues the General Assembly adopts, it will be essential that it be equipped to lead to tangible results. The Working Group – as the think-tank on indigenous issues - could and should elaborate its own substantive proposals in this regard so as to provide inspiration and guidance to further discussions and planning. My Office is committed to working with you in this regard.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It would remiss if I did not refer to the Working Group and acknowledge the debate relating to its future. I am aware that some are suggesting that the Working Group may no longer be necessary in light of the establishment of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. I also know that indigenous peoples and some other actors continue to consider the Working Group as an indispensable part of the mechanisms that are now available to promote the interests of indigenous peoples internationally. The Economic and Social Council during this month will give consideration to a report by the Secretary-General on UN mechanisms relating to indigenous peoples. Our Office has provided its contribution to this report reflecting inter alia the vital achievements of this Working Group and highlighting the importance of the two recent seminars on indigenous issues related to administration of justice and treaties between indigenous peoples and States.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to conclude my comments by saying that I consider the promotion and the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples as one of the priorities of our human rights programme and of the United Nations as a whole. I look to you - experts of the Working Group, indigenous peoples, governmental delegations and the staff of our Office – to reflect upon how we can enhance and strengthen the work of our Office in this area. I want you to know that the High Commissioner for Human Rights is your ally and friend in the struggle for human rights for all.

I look forward to meeting all of you again on Thursday morning when we celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.

Thank you for your attention.

I now invite members to propose a Chairperson-Rapporteur for the 22nd session of the Working Group…