Indigenous leaders from around the world gathered in Chiang Mai, Thailand recently to beginning planning for the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, which will be the first time the United Nation’s General Assembly will devot the annual forum to discussing indigenous affairs.

Organizers Begin Planning for World Indigenous Conference; UN General Assembly to Host

Jenni Monet

It’s an event not expected to unravel for another two years, but organizers of the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples say the clock is ticking.

Delegates with the Indigenous Global Coordinating Group for the WCIP recently convened in Chiang Mai, Thailand to begin planning for the historic meeting. The international conference, slated for September 22nd-23rd in 2014, will be the first time the United Nation’s General Assembly will devote its annual forum to discussing indigenous affairs with global indigenous leaders.

In September, the Assembly adopted a draft resolution to formally recognize it’s 69th session as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. According to a press release, the goals are to “share perspectives and best practices on the realization of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and to pursue the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

In a formal statement, Grand Chief Ed John, Chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Issues praised the WCIP saying the anticipated talks ensure greater and more inclusive participation from indigenous world leaders.  “Indigenous Peoples need to be involved, heard and their issues addressed for real and transformative change to happen,” said John.

Today, there are an estimated 370-million people who identify as indigenous, yet many of the world’s governments lack laws and policies respecting the rights of its original inhabitants. Land entitlement and natural resource protection are some of the most critical concerns shared among the global indigenous community. Climate-related issues are also proving to be a common growing problem.

The GCG, is a stand alone body created by Indigenous representatives to coordinate the Indigenous participation in the lead-up to the world conference and the world conference itself. The group is the leading organizing committee that will assess key topics to target during the 69th Assembly session. The 18-member team is comprised of indigenous organizers from seven regions around the world and two other groups advocating for the rights of women and youth.

Alyssa Macy, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, is a delegate of the Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus. She was among the attendees who traveled to Thailand’s border-town of Chiang Mai to participate in a two-day planning forum on October 4th and 5th.

Macy says while there are many tasks at hand, the most critical will be raising awareness among tribal leaders in the U.S. and Canada and stressing the great significance of the WCIP. “This isn’t just another indigenous-only event,” said Macy. “It’s a high-level plenary meeting housed within the U.N. structure where Indigenous Peoples around the world will have the opportunity to sit at a table of nations.”

The General Assembly is comprised of 193 members worldwide. As the U.N.’s main policy-making organ for international human rights, its focused commitment on indigenous issues in 2014 should be seen as a milestone. For nearly 70 years the social movement to protect the rights of First Peoples has steadily inched along. Cayuga Chief Deskaheh of the Iroquois Confederacy is believed to have been the first to rally for the cause at the international level. In 1923, he journeyed to Geneva to address the League of Nations. There, he would wait for an entire year before returning home, unheard.

Today, indigenous voices have been included in the U.N.’s human rights agenda in ways early advocates only once imagined. Mohawk activist and long-time indigenous rights organizer Kenneth Deer has been working to advance the movement since 1987. He attended every U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations  through 2006, which play a vital role in establishing the Permanent Forum and drafting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Deer says the progress made in his lifetime brings promise for the future, but also a responsibility to protect the advancements achieved thus far. “What we don’t want is to have state’s reinterpret or undermine the gains we’ve made,” said Deer. A skeptic of the General Assembly, Deer worries member states hostile to indigenous causes will use the WCIP to frame arguments that could weaken the overall movement, including challenging articles outlined in UNDRIP.

Between now and the summer of 2014, Deer, who serves as the Representative to the GCG, will join Macy and other members in seeking input from indigenous leaders worldwide to help define timely issues and universal themes to include in the 2014 Assembly talks.

One area the North American delegation will be exploring, according to Macy, is the issue of treaty enforcement and preservation. Treaties were among the primary concerns addressed by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Rights of Indigenous Peoples following an official fact-finding mission held earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the GCG will be strategizing a fundraising plan to aid in the development of the WCIP, including identifying host-communities interested in sponsoring events like the one held in Chiang Mai. To get involved and to stay informed, organizers are encouraging interested parties to visit their Facebook page.

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