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The United Nations and Indigenous Peoples from 1969 to 1994(note 1)

Erica-Irene Daes,
Professor, Dr., Chairperson/Rapporteur of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, United Nations

Today the United Nation and indigenous representatives look back on more than twenty years of joint efforts to promote the cause of indigenous peoples. This paper will give a brief overview of how this constructive co-operation evolved in the past and how it might develop in the future.

The Martinez Cobo Study

Before 1969 the problems of indigenous populations have not been on the agenda of the Commission on Human Rights or of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, although a number of studies undertaken by Special Rapporteurs of the Sub-Commission on various discrimination issues indirectly benefited indigenous peoples. (note 2)

In 1969 the Sub-Commission had before it a report of the Special Rapporteur on the Study on Racial Discrimination in the Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Spheres. It included a chapter on measures taken in connection with the protection of indigenous peoples. (note 3) This started a process of discussion in the Sub-Commission and in the Commission on Human Rights. In 1970 the Sub-Commission recommended that a comprehensive study be made of the problem of discrimination against indigenous populations. (note 4) The recommendation passed the Commission and was finally taken up by the Economic and Social Council. The Council adopted resolution 1589 (L) of 21 May 1971, in which it authorized the preparation of such a study.

Later in 1971 Mr. Jose Martinez Cobo was appointed Special Rapporteur for the study on the problem of discrimination against indigenous populations. (note 5) Following this the problem of discrimination against indigenous populations was on the agenda of the Sub-Commission in almost all the following years and the Special Rapporteur subsequently submitted progress reports in connection with the study.

The study which was finally completed between 1981 and 1984, starts with a working definition of «indigenous populations» and covers a wide range of issues, such as indigenous identity, culture and legal systems, health and medical care, housing, education, language etc. Its conclusions clearly showed that the social conditions in which most indigenous peoples lived were favourable to discriminations in the various fields the study had dealt with. Drawing on these conclusions the study came up with a great number of proposals and recommendations. (note 6)

The Working Group on Indigenous Population

Already before the study had been completed the concern it had raised for the plight of indigenous peoples had caused the Sub-Commission in 1981 to propose the establishment of a Working Group on Indigenous Populations. (note 7) The proposal was endorsed by the commission (note 8) and in 1982 the Economic and Social Council authorized the Sub-Commission to create such a Working Group. (note 9)

The Working Group which is composed of five members, one from each geographical region of the world, who are members of the Sub-Commission and serve as independent experts in their personal capacity, held its first meeting in 1982 and its second meeting in 1983 under the chairmanship of Mr. Asbjørn Eide. In 1984 the present author Ms. Erica-Irene Daes was elected Chairperson Rapporteur of the Working Group and under this capacity she is serving until today.

At this time participation by representatives of indigenous peoples in the annual session of the Working Group, which is held in Geneva in July every year, was still limited to a very modest number. In order to enable more indigenous representatives to participate in its work the Working Group had from the beginning pursued the idea of establishing a travel fund. (note 10) In 1984 the establishment of such a fund was on the agenda of the Working Group for the first time.

In 1985 the idea was taken up by the General Assembly and the «United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations» was established to assist representatives of indigenous communities and organizations to attend the sessions of the Working Group. The capacity of the fund was steadily growing over the years. For the twelfth session of the Working Group, which took place this year, travel and accommodation for over 44 representatives of indigenous peoples could be funded.

In her capacity as the Chairperson of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations Ms. Daes herself went on numerous travels in order to contact indigenous representatives and to raise awareness for their problems throughout the world. These travels led her to the Nordic Countries in 1989, United States - in particular Arizona - in 1990, Brazil and Japan in 1991, to New Zealand in 1992 and to Australia in 1989 and 1993, Canada in 1985, 1987 and 1993 and in Alaska in 1994, to mention only some of these important visits.

The mandate of the Working Group contains two major issues. One is the evolution of standards concerning the rights of indigenous peoples, the other is the review of developments pertaining to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples and to submit its conclusions and recommendations to its parent body to the SubCommission.

Under the agenda item on the evolution of standards concerning the rights of indigenous peoples the Chairperson/Rapporteur of the Working Group Ms E.-A. Daes, had collected information from the very beginning. In 1988 the actual work on a draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples began. Since the first text was presented to the Working Group by Ms. E.-A. Daes the draft declaration has undergone an unprecedented process of discussion with all parties concerned. Key issues of the declaration are the right to self-determination, the use of the term «peoples» in plural instead of «people» in singular, the notion of collective rights as for example the right to own their lands and to dispose freely over natural resources, cultural and intellectual property rights and the question of the observance of treaties between states and indigenous people. (note 11)

During the work on the draft declaration two very acute issues arouse, which seemed to need more in depth study. One was an issue already addressed in the Martinez Cobo report, i.e. a study of treaties, agreements and other legal arrangements between states and indigenous peoples. In 1989 Mr. Miguel Alfonso Martinez, a member of the Working Group, was appointed Special Rapporteur with the task of writing a study which should take among others, the sovereignty of states into account but at the same time suggests ways of achieving protection of indigenous treaty rights through domestic as well as through international law.

The other issue that proved to need particular study was the question of cultural and intellectual property of indigenous peoples. In 1990 Ms. Erica-Irene Daes was appointed Special Rapporteur for this issue. Both Special Rapporteurs subsequently presented the results of their work to the Working Group. (note 12) In 1993 the Sub-Commission authorized Ms. Daes to elaborate draft principles and guidelines for the protection of the heritage of indigenous peoples based on her study. (note 13) She has completed the elaboration of these principles and guidelines and submitted her relevant preliminary report on «Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous People» (Doc. E/CN.4/Sub 2./1994/31 of 8 July 1994) to the Forty-sixth session of the Sub-Commission.

As recommended by the Sub-Commission, by the Commission and by the World Conference on Human Rights the Working Group finalized the drafting of the declaration at its eleventh session in 1993, after yet another round of intensive consultations with representatives of the specialized agencies specifically the International Labour Organisation (ILO), representatives of the observer governments and in particular of indigenous peoples, non-governmental organizations concerned and some scholars, who on the basis of their knowledge and experience made their contribution. On the basis of a relevant proposal of the Chairperson/Rapporteur the Working Group reviewed once again the draft declaration and submitted it to the Sub-Commission for its consideration. The draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was considered by the Sub-Commission during its forty-sixth session (August 1994) (note 14) and has already been duly submitted to the Commission on Human Rights to be further considered during its fifty-first session. The Sub-Commission also recommended to the Commission on Human Rights and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) that they should take effective measures to ensure that representatives of indigenous peoples are able to participate in the consideration of the draft declaration by these two bodies, regardless of their consultative status with the ECOSOC.

The other main issue of the Working Groups mandate, the review of developments pertaining to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, made the Working Group's sessions evolve into an important forum for indigenous representatives to make their problems known to the world. By making written and oral statements about the conditions they are living in, indigenous representatives provide invaluable information to the members of the Working Group but also to the international media.

Over the years the Working Group's annual session in July gained considerable momentum and became the centre of indigenous rights activity in the United Nations. The growing number and scope of agenda items discussed and the ever growing number of participants and in particular the elaboration of the draft declaration, made it necessary for the Working Group to extend its sessions to two weeks. The Working Group's session now gather about 700 people each year in Geneva, being - after the sessions of the Commission and the Sub-Commission - the third biggest human rights meeting held regularly in the framework of the United Nations. The Working Group is indeed, nowadays, a «Community for Action».

1993 The international Year of the World's Indigenous People

The idea to hold an International Year of the World's Indigenous People was already put forward in the recommendations of the above-mentioned Martinez Cobo study. (note 15) In 1990, the General Assembly decided to proclaim 1993 the International Year of the World's Indigenous People's. (note 16) The International Year, the theme of which is: «Indigenous People: A New Partnership», is aimed at encouraging new relationships and reconciliation between indigenous people and states.

One major aim of the International Year is to raise awareness world-wide for the plight of indigenous peoples by disseminating information, through promotional materials, cultural activities and sponsoring of seminars and technical meetings. Moreover, Peace Nobel Prize Laureate Ms. Rigoberta Menchu has accepted to act as a Goodwill Ambassador for the International Year and has been actively promoting information about indigenous peoples' concerns by giving press conferences, organizing meetings and travelling throughout the world.

The second aim of the International Year is to enhance the resources available to indigenous peoples through providing support for projects in the areas of health, education, culture etc. For this purpose a Voluntary Fund for the International Year was set up.

The World Conference on Human Rights which was hold from 14 to 25 June 1993 in Vienna, Austria, also took the commemoration of the International Year on its agenda. On one day, 18 June 1993, the morning session was entirely dedicated to indigenous peoples concerns. It was a real historic event; the President of the World Conference, the Assistant Secretary General, the Chairperson of the Working Group E.-A. Daes addressed the plenary of this historic Conference and defended the human rights of the world's Indigenous Peoples. Also, a number of indigenous representatives addressed the Conference and it was given them the possibility to speak directly to Governments at a very high level. The final document of the World Conference, the «Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action» (note 17) contains a number of recommendations concerning indigenous peoples. It recognised the «inherent dignity and the unique contribution of indigenous people to the development and plurality of society» and reaffirmed the commitment «of the international community to their economic, social and cultural well-being and their enjoyment of the fruits of sustainable development». (note 18)

Conclusion and Future Prospects

The United Nations and indigenous peoples in particular have worked together to make the struggle of indigenous peoples visible and to make it known world-wide. In this process the creation of the Working Group in 1982 and the completion of the Draft Declaration in 1993 are major landmarks. Now the Draft Declaration needs to make its way through the Commission on Human Rights and the Economic and Social Council up to the General Assembly to become a universally accepted standard of indigenous rights as a «United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples»; and it may form the basis for a legally binding instrument like a Convention later on.

Now, to continue the work of the International Year, an International Decade of the World's Indigenous People has been proclaimed by the 48th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The Decade will provide the opportunity to utilize our experience with the International Year to further relationship between indigenous peoples, States and the United Nations system. One goal of the Decade will be equitable participation by indigenous peoples in United Nations programmes and projects. It is important to provide adequate financial and human resources to support this effort.

If the International Year fell short of its objectives, the United Nations must take this as a challenge to demonstrate more fully and faithfully its commitment to these «First Nations» of the world in a decade-long programme of cooperation, partnership, spiritual renewal and self-determination. Might we hope that, 10 years hence, with sincere commitment and political support of Member States, indigenous peoples the world over will fully enjoy their rights, their safety and freedom which they are still denied.

I believe that indigenous peoples have reached a critical turning-point, and that their long-neglected rights will soon emerge from the shadow of history into the light of contemporary recognition and implementation. I look forward to the day when indigenous peoples everywhere will be heard in the councils of the world, speaking in all their languages the feelings so eloquently expressed by the American Indian poet Scott Momaday:

You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful ...


  1. Updated version (November 1994) of paper read to the conference. Back
  2. See the Martinez-Cobo study, UN document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7, and Add. 1-4, Vol. I, pp 10-12.Back
  3. Document E/CN.4Sub.2/301. Back
  4. Resolution 4B (XXIII) of 26 August 1970. Back
  5. Resolution B (XXIV) of 10 August 1971. Back
  6. The conclusions, proposals and recommendations are contained in Vol. V of the study, UN Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7 Add.4.Back
  7. Resolution 2 (XXXIV) of 8 September 1981.Back
  8. Resolution 1982/19 of 10 March 1982. Back
  9. Resolution 1982/43 of 7 May 1982. Back
  10. Resolution 1982/31. Back
  11. See for example the discussion reflected in the report of the eleventh session of the Working Group E/CN.4/Sub.2/1993/29. Back
  12. Study on treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between States and indigenous populations by Mr. Miguel Alfonso Martinez E/CN.4/Sub.2/1992/32; Study on the protection of the cultural and intellectual property of indigenous peoples by Ms. Erica-Irene Daes E/CN.4/Sub.2/1993/28.Back
  13. Resolution 1993/44 of 26 August 1993. Back
  14. Resolution of the Sub-Commission 1994/45 of 26 August 1994. Back
  15. See E/Cn.4/Sub.2/1986/7/Add.4, p. 46. Back
  16. See Resolution 45/164 of 18 December 1990.Back
  17. Document A/CONF. 157/23.Back
  18. Part I, Pra 20 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action: Further recommendations concerning indigenous peoples are contained in Part II, Para 28-32.

Printed in: Becoming Visible - Indigenous Politics and Self-Government. Edited by Terje Brantenberg, Janne Hansen, and Henry Minde.
The University of Tromsø, Sámi dutkamiid guovddáš - Centre for Sámi Studies, Tromsø, Norway 1995. ISSN 0804-6093.

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