Suggestion: That indigenous nation delegations may speak or intervene at any level concerning any topic deemed relevant to the interests or rights of each nation consistent with the right of free, prior and informed consent.

Will It Be Enough? UN Proposed Changes Could Give Indigenous Peoples a Voice

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

For several weeks now Native American leaders have been talking about proposed changes for Indigenous Peoples in the United Nations system. This is in response to questions posed by the United Nations General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark as part of the follow-up to the high-level plenary meeting known as the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) held in 2014.

The two primary topics: creating an avenue for meaningful participation and representation of Indigenous governments in the U.N., and how to implement a mechanism to monitor the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).


In March the United Nations announced an ambitious consultation process to take place until June. The process involves electronic submission of recommendations. The goal of the consultations is the drafting of a text allowing indigenous government representation at the U.N. to be considered by the U.N. at the 71st meeting of the General Assembly in September. Documents were accepted electronically and will be reviewed by a group of four advisors, two representing Member States and two representing Indigenous Peoples.

Drafts of the text will be circulated from late April until July, and will be discussed at this year’s annual meeting of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, May 9 – 20 in New York.

The consultations are the fulfilling of a commitment made by U.N. Member States during the WCIP. The commitments promise to enable the participation of Indigenous Peoples’ representatives and governments in relevant United Nations bodies on issues affecting them.

The questions posed by the President of the UNGA and his advisors included requests for recommendations that will ensure meaningful and effective representation. This includes suggestions for determining eligibility and accreditation for Indigenous Peoples’ representatives.

On March 10 the National Congress of American Indians held a conference call with Native leaders to discuss indigenous government representation.

Some of the submissions to the U.N.’s electronic consultation process from indigenous groups in the U.S. can be viewed here and here.

Suggestions for inclusion of indigenous governing institutions include granting them a special observer status or the creation of an entirely new status. Such a new status must be capable of recognizing the political and legal nature of Indigenous Peoples, extending beyond their consultative function as NGO’s. Others advised that indigenous representatives should have the right to introduce legal instruments (such as treaties and other protocols) about issues that affect them. Another suggested that indigenous nation delegations may speak or intervene at any level concerning any topic deemed relevant to the interests or rights of each nation consistent with the right of free, prior and informed consent.

Including indigenous representatives into the U.N. system means expanding the way the U.N. currently functions relative to Indigenous Peoples. The main bodies that take up indigenous concerns, the UNPFII and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), have no authority beyond their consultative and advisory functions. Neither they nor indigenous non-governmental organizations have representational power. This is why Indigenous Peoples had no official voice at the WCIP in 2014.

UNDRIP Monitoring

Among other things, the WCIP Outcome Document recommended that the mandate of EMRIP be modified and expanded to function as a monitoring body for the implementation of UNDRIP. UNDRIP was passed by the U.N. General Assembly to protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights, including the right of self-determination and free, prior, and informed consent to issues that involve their lands and resources. Almost a decade after the passage of UNDRIP no such monitoring function yet exists.

On March 11 the U.S. State Department held a telephonic consultation with Native leaders, seeking their recommendations in preparation for a United Nations Expert Workshop to review EMRIP’s mandate on April 4 – 5. The consultation was the latest of meetings that have taken place between Native nations and the State Department in the past couple of years.

As opposed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has been the arm of the federal government that has exclusively dealt with American Indians for well over a century, State Department involvement is new.

The nascent relationship between Native nations and the Department of State is a matter of debate among some observers who may see it as insignificant at best, or at worst another attempt of the federal government to undermine the concept of Indigenous self-determination.

On the other hand, it may be seen as an unprecedented level of engagement between American Indians and the federal government in the international arena. Either way, the involvement of the State Department is part of the U.S.’s government-to-government policy with Native nations.

In preparation for the Expert Workshop a questionnaire was made available, soliciting responses from all stakeholders including Member States and Indigenous Peoples. Responses to the questionnaire from indigenous organizations in the U.S. can be viewed here and here. A compiled summary of the questionnaire responses from indigenous groups all over the world can be viewed here.

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