Global Welfare and equalities

“Leaving no one behind”: the call for local action to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples


Photo by 995645 on Pixabay

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is commemorated each year on 9 August to highlight the cultures, knowledges and resilience of more than 476 million Indigenous peoples across the globe, as well as the ongoing issues they face concerning rights, recognition and inequality.

This blog provides an overview of the key messages relevant to local government from the 2021 virtual commemoration for this day, which this year was themed: “Leaving no one behind: Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract.”

The United Nations needs local government’s help.

Nearly 14 years after the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly, speakers at this year’s UN virtual commemoration spoke passionately about the need for high-level declarations and dialogue to have a tangible impact on the lives of real people.

Former UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés called for a “reconnection of scales” between international, national and local level decision-making.

Espinosa Garcés questioned how much the UN Declaration has been embedded in the lives of Indigenous peoples at a local and national level since its adoption.

She invited national and subnational governments to use and implement UN documents and policies such as this within their own legislation.

According to Espinosa Garcés, three “deficits” prevent Indigenous peoples being genuinely engaged in decision-making: a participation deficit, an implementation deficit and a trust deficit in institutions.

Currently, UN discussions are held within small, self-contained groups of leaders and intellectuals and there is no built-in mechanism for listening to the diverse struggles faced by Indigenous peoples across the globe, varying from land rights to political participation to rights to self-determination, she said.

Sustained financial commitments, affirming fundamental human rights and decolonising institutional structures, including the UN, are vital to a fairer recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, she said.

Fellow speaker James Anaya, University of Colorado Law School Dean and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, also emphasised the need for abstract documents to be translated into concrete action to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples.

Anaya criticised the lack of formal status of Indigenous peoples within the UN system, highlighting that the “UN itself is not in compliance with its own standards.”

Globally, there have been some positive developments, Anaya said, including Canada adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples last month, and countries including Ecuador, Chile and Mexico taking steps towards reforming their constitutions.

However, “legitimacy” for reform and action “depends on the participation of Indigenous peoples,” said Anaya, and “so far there has been a lack of sufficient political will across the globe.”

Covid-19 has been a “great disruptor,” stalling other processes in place, Anaya said, and forcing Indigenous peoples to take strong action to protect their communities.

Ultimately though, Anaya expressed optimism about how far the recognition for Indigenous peoples within global political systems has advanced since the UN Declaration was being prepared over 14 years ago and consequently how perspectives and opportunities can continue to evolve.

Both speakers emphasised that it is vital for all levels of government to involve, listen to and learn from Indigenous peoples to work together to face major global issues such as climate change and food crises.

For example, a recent study found that Canada could learn from Indigenous cultural burning programs in Australia, Brazil and California to manage wildfire threats.

Event speakers emphasised that genuine reconciliation begins with the acknowledgement of groups who are marginalised within existing unwritten “social contracts,” including Indigenous peoples, followed by genuine partnership with these groups, established through advance, free and informed consent.

The event began with a traditional ceremony in Onondaga language by Tadodaho Sidney Hill, followed by video messages by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Chair Anne Nuorgam.

“Leave no one behind” is one of 12 commitments which will shape ‘Our Common Agenda’: a report, “springboard to action” and manifesto for the UN’s future after 75 years, set to be released in the next month.

More than 600 people from over 20 countries attended the virtual event, which was livestreamed on Zoom and Facebook.

Event moderator Ghazali Ohorella, Indigenous rights advocate and Gomaluku podcast host, concluded the event by inviting audience members to engage in conversation with their own communities, Indigenous leaders and all levels of government to transform UN-level human rights declarations into visible action at the local level.

Find out more and watch the event in full on the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Facebook page.

Complex global issues require action at the local level more than ever. Sign up here to receive the new, free Global Local Recap by LGIU. This week’s edition focuses on Indigenous communities and local government. 

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