Courtesy IIPFCC
Indigenous negotiators at the COP21. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, third from left.

Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus Focuses on Setbacks at COP21 as Agreement Moves to Final Negotiations

Terri Hansen

Indigenous Peoples lobbied participating countries at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris to adopt a strong human rights approach and take into consideration their special vulnerabilities to climate change impacts as well as their valuable contributions to adaptation and mitigation strategies.

In particular the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) asked that “respect for human rights, including the rights of Indigenous Peoples in climate change policies and actions” be integrated into both the preamble of the Paris Agreement, which sets the framework for interpreting and implementing all the operative provisions, and the legally binding operative section.

Representatives of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus sprang into defensive action on December 3 after Norway, backed by the United States, Australia and some European countries, added brackets around wording that referenced Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the preamble and in Article 2.2 of the operative draft Paris Climate Agreement text. Bracketing a letter, word or section opens it up for further discussion, and thus potential change.

Also bracketed was the “s” in Indigenous People[s]. The following day, inside the conference, indigenous representatives held up individual letters that together spelled out WE ARE PEOPLES. Outside the venue, Indigenous Peoples from diverse countries united in demonstrations to show their opposition to the proposed changes.

“That is unreasonable for us,” Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a pastoralist from Chad, Africa, and co-chair of the IIPFCC to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), told ICTMN. “We do not understand why a country like Norway, who is supporting Indigenous Peoples’ preparation and participation to the COP21, reacted as that. The U.S. as well.”

Such sentiments were echoed by other conference participants, including U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who said that taking out references to indigenous human rights in key sections of the agreement could impair forest preservation that is founded on traditional knowledge.

“Failure to protect indigenous peoples’ rights in a final agreement will fuel destruction of the forests and other ecosystems managed since time immemorial by indigenous peoples,” Tauli-Corpuz said in a statement. “This will weaken the contributions of indigenous peoples to the solutions to climate change.”

Reuters reported that Norway and the other countries were concerned that including human rights protections in the operational text—the binding part of the agreement—could create some form of legal liability if climate change is judged to have violated those rights. The entire Article 2.2 in the Draft Paris Outcome published by the UNFCCC on December 5 is now bracketed, and the text has moved to the ministerial level for final negotiations.

“This language has been bracketed, removed, put back, changed, put back,” Frank Ettawageshik (Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians), representing the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) as a participant of the Indigenous Caucus, told ICTMN.

Andrea Carmen (Yaqui Nation of Arizona), executive director of the International Indigenous Treaty Council, a Global Steering Committee partner to the IIPFCC, told ICTMN that matters had changed “several times a day” with regards to Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the Paris Climate Agreement.

“Canada called for reinserting Indigenous Peoples in the operative 2.2 paragraph,” Carmen said. “It had a huge impact. We’ve seen a growing number of States willing to support that.”

RELATED: Indigenous Rights Boosted In the Climate Change Negotiations

Because the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus has observer status to the UNFCCC, its representatives can lobby delegates at the COP and at inter-sessional meetings, which they did throughout the days and late into the nights.

“Should human rights for indigenous peoples be struck from the final agreement, negotiators will have destroyed any pretense of their intention to mitigate climate change,” said Tauli-Corpuz. “If our rights are violated, we will be unable to protect the forests. This is the direct link between human rights and climate change.”

Carmen said tribal leaders and indigenous representatives met with U.S. government representative Andrew Light, a staff climate adviser in the U.S. Department of State as well as a consultant for the State Department at COP21. Light assured them from the very top, President Barack Obama, that Indigenous Peoples’ rights would be included in the text.

“They’re vague about placement,” Carmen said. “They don’t really want it in the operative; they would rather have it in the preamble. We would like it in both.”

Indigenous Peoples have commitments from a growing number of countries (known as State Parties in COP21 parlance) to propose inclusion of the rights of Indigenous Peoples in operative paragraph two on Human Rights, including Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Philippines and Canada, as well as several Pacific island states, Carmen said.

As of December 6, the words “rights of Indigenous Peoples” appeared without brackets in pre-ambular paragraph 10. Carmen said the basis of their work in the summit’s second week will be to continue to work for the term’s inclusion in the operative section.

Also under Article 2 of the draft Paris agreement is holding the “increase in the global average temperature to [below 1.5°C] [or] [well below 2°C] above pre-industrial levels by ensuring deep reductions in global greenhouse gas [net] emissions.” Because of the disastrous effects climate disruption has already had on Indigenous Peoples, the IIPFCC proposed that warming be kept to no more than 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.

The IIPFCC won’t know until next week how the final Paris Climate Agreement will read. The goal of the COP21 is to adopt, by December 11, an international, legally binding climate agreement under the convention in the form of a protocol that is applicable to all parties.

“Basically we’ve been kicking the can down the road,” said NCAI’s Ettawageshik. “Had we taken action earlier we wouldn’t have to take such drastic action now. We’re running out of road to kick the can down.”

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