Grand Chief Edward John, Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Toward a New Era: End-of-Year Message by Grand Chief Edward John, Chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

January 03, 2013


Grand Chief Edward John, Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, released a holiday message as 2012 wound down. John touched on the Idle No More movement that has spread throughout Turtle Island from Canada over the past month; the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence that was then in its third week, and the dawn of the 14th Bak’tun of the Maya on December 21, and tied all of it into the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to discuss the way forward.


As I write this holiday message, I think back over the past year and the events I attended in pursuit of justice for Indigenous Peoples. Injustices and human rights violations occur on a daily basis, even in my own country of Canada, where we continue to struggle for our rights. In fact one of our elected Chiefs, Teresa Spence, is now in her 18th day of a hunger strike over the social and economic conditions in indigenous communities across Canada. The underlying message is clear—there is no time for complacency, we have to work even harder. We must never give up hope.

Just this past week, I along with the Permanent Forum members, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Experts from the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, together with Secretariat staff, attended sessions in Guatemala City and also in Tikal, Guatemala. The invitation from the Government of Guatemala—and with the support of the U.N. Country Team in Guatemala and their partners provided us an important opportunity to commemorate the Oxlajuj B’aqtun—the dawn of a new era, the 14th B’aqtun, according to the incredible Mayan calendar; and help us prepare for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014. The week was demanding but at the same time very moving and inspiring.

It has also been an excellent opportunity for the three U.N. mechanisms (the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) working on indigenous issues to meet with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, civil society and government representatives. The meeting served as an important reminder of the progress underway and what needs to be done to reach our goals and make the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a reality for Indigenous Peoples around the world.

This year the Permanent Forum held its 11th session. With more than a decade of experience, it has seen the rights of Indigenous Peoples being increasingly recognized within the international community. However, there is still a long way to go for Indigenous Peoples’ full and effective participation in matters that concern them.

The theme of the eleventh session—“Doctrine of Discovery: Its Enduring Impact on Indigenous Peoples and the Right to Redress for Past Conquests” reflects the situation of Indigenous Peoples around the world. Many States are now revising their constitutional provisions concerning Indigenous Peoples, including the right to redress and remediation for violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. States that have made formal acknowledgements and apologies to redress past injustices are now in the process of defining new relationships between the government and Indigenous Peoples. While wide social disparities continue to face Indigenous Peoples, these steps, while small, are important relationship building blocks and need to be acknowledged.

The Permanent Forum continues to work with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and he continues to report on the prevailing discrimination against Indigenous Peoples and their near invisibility in the political, economic and social spheres of the States in which they live. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has provided a new basis for understanding the status and rights of Indigenous Peoples, and it continues to be the catalyst for change in ensuring the standards of Indigenous Peoples’ rights are being met.

I am also very concerned about violence against indigenous women and girls. In January 2012 the Permanent Forum held an expert group meeting titled Combating Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls: Article 22 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This important issue was discussed among member-states, U.N. agencies including U.N. Women, as well as Indigenous Peoples’ organizations emphasizing the different dimensions and the need to continue efforts towards its elimination.

During the Permanent Forum’s 11th session, there was the regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Experts and speakers described the region’s ethnic and cultural diversity, and the threats to its fragile natural ecosystems, along with reindeer herding and other traditional livelihoods. While there has been some economic progress, Indigenous Peoples’ lands, languages and cultural heritage remain vulnerable.

United Nations agencies continue to play an important role in the work of the Permanent Forum. During the Permanent Forum’s session there was an interactive dialogue with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) where speaker after speaker called for greater recognition of Indigenous Peoples in WIPO’s decision-making processes and to respect their right to safeguard, preserve or promote traditional resources according to their rights and priorities. WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore is engaged in a process of elaborating an international legal instrument regarding traditional knowledge, genetic resources and traditional cultural expressions, which will be considered in 2013.

The Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Peoples Issues held their annual meeting in November hosted by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. It was very well organized, and I was very impressed with the work of many U.N. Agencies in trying to make a difference to the lives of Indigenous Peoples. The Permanent Forum will continue to work with, and support U.N. Agencies as they work hard to implement the Forum’s recommendations.

Let me turn to the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, which will be held in 2014. The President of the General Assembly has appointed two facilitators: the Permanent Representative of Mexico, Ambassador de Alba and an indigenous representative of the Saami Parliament of Norway, Mr. John B. Henriksen to conduct consultations. Together with the Office of the President of the General Assembly, the facilitators conducted an open discussion on the modalities, the preparatory process and outcome of the World Conference. A Resolution on the Modalities of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples was passed by the General Assembly in September 2012. Amid deep scepticism about the level of State commitments, Indigenous Peoples are preparing for this conference. Meetings have already been held in Africa, Arctic and Asia. As part of the 12th session, the Permanent Forum will continue to work towards the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014 and request States and U.N. Agencies to actively engage with, and support Indigenous Peoples in the preparation process of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

A milestone in 2012 was the anniversary of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Five years have past since its adoption where we—through persistence and collaboration—gained a new international standard for the continued survival of Indigenous Peoples, the protection of their rights, dignity and well-being.

As an international human rights instrument, the U.N. Declaration forms the pillar of the Permanent Forum’s work and guides our activities. We cannot afford to divert from our continued efforts to address the gaps of the implementation of the U.N. Declaration.

We need to make sure there is a real difference on the ground for Indigenous Peoples.

In this spirit, I would like call on Indigenous Peoples, States and U.N. agencies to collaborate and re-affirm their commitments towards attaining the rights of Indigenous Peoples in all its activities in 2013 and beyond.

In closing, I would like to wish you all Happy Holidays and a happy new B’aqtun. Thank you for your support over the past year. May our ancestors guide us well into the New Year.

Chief Edward John


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