It was the first day of fall in New York City and I was walking alongside the security barriers near the UN headquarter waiting to talk with a Scandinavian indigenous Sami delegate to the first UN World Conference on Indigenous People (WCIP 2014). The majority of people passing by the building were dressed in black suits; they were typically either security guards or political and economic world leaders attending one of the high-level plenary meetings of the ongoing General Assembly.
The WCIP had been preceded by a long preparatory process and the outcome was considered a success even beforehand because government leaders and indigenous people had managed to agree on a joint final document, which was signed during the meeting.
The final document is considered a strong outcome and will be an important tool for indigenous people to advance and put pressure on their respective governments to put into practice the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People from 2007.
“The World Conference adopted a number of recommendations about how to more effectively implement the indigenous people’s rights from the declaration, both at the international and national level,” said the Sami Council’s Chief Counsel Mattias Ahrén by phone after the meeting.
Ahrén pointed out two particular articles, number seven and eight, in the final document. The former requires the states to consult and cooperate with the indigenous people, and to take national measures including necessary legislation to comply with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Through article eight the states commit themselves to developing national action plans considering concrete practices for implementing the declaration.
“The content of article seven and eight thus emphasizes the legal relevance of the UN Declaration on the rights of the Indigenous People – that the rights enshrined there actually are legally binding even if the declaration itself formally is not”, said Mattias Ahrén.
Josefina Skerk who was a Sami delegate from Sweden at the WCIP and who I met for a coffee near UN headquarters in between round-table discussions said, “We are in a better position now to promote our rights, but the final document will only be worth something if we as indigenous people continue to put pressure on our governments for a fast implementation.”
Skerk also highlighted the fact that the Russian authorities tried to stop the Russian Sami delegates from attending the meeting by use of physical force when leaving the country.
Barents Observer writes about how one of them, Valentina Sovkina, was stopped several times on the way from Lovozero on the Kola Peninsula to Norway where she was going to take a flight to NY. Among the obstacles were reports on of one of the drivers who had his tires cut, one delegate who got his passport stolen and someone who tried to snatch a bag from another delegate.
The Finnish President Sauli Niinistö expressed concern about these events during his statement at the World Conference, stating that Russia had attempted to prevent the Russian Sámi people from traveling.
One of the main concerns and unifying issues for indigenous people around the world is the precious relationship between human beings and land, water and natural resources. Such a connection is also strongly linked to their identity and way of living, as explained at the recent conference. Members of indigenous communities have given hundreds of testimonies about how land and water are under constant attack as a consequence of an on-going and aggressive focus on extractive industries.
Land and water were also main themes of the conference. Article 21 in the conference’s final document emphasized the governments’ commitment to establishing processes to identify and enforce indigenous people’s rights to land, territory and natural resources.
Lolita Chávez, Maya, human rights defender and indigenous leader from Guatemala believes it is important that indigenous peoples continue to recognize their ancestral heritage and assert their indigenous identity in order to avoid being undermined by states and extractive businesses.
”We should also be honest about the UN system not giving us anything for free. We are the ones who constantly claim and fight for our rights,” said Chávez, who participated in several complementary events during the World Conference.
Parallel to the UN World Conference a climate summit organized by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was held in New York as well as several other seminars organized by civil society groups and social movements during what was known as New York’s ”climate week.”
Such climate-related events all got a sparkling start when the world’s largest climate march, in which indigenous people and people of color participated in the frontline, took place on the streets of Manhattan on Sunday September 21st. Indigenous people are often considered to be the first to be affected by extreme temperatures, flooding, droughts and melting ice in the wake of climate change. Therefore, such communities are also often considered to be the ones who possess many solutions to climate change-related crises.
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, indigenous woman, poet and environmental activist from the Marshall Islands was the only speaker from civil society at the UN high-level climate meeting. In one of the last lines of the poem she had written and read in front of the UN assembly she summed up what the fight for the rights of indigenous people and the environment is all about: “We deserve more than just survive. We deserve to thrive.”
Actress and indigenous activist Casey Camp-Horinek, from the Ponca Nation in Oaklahoma, also sent a message to the world’s economic and political leaders from the UN Church Center: “Dollar – we can burn that, but the land will rest forever.”
The reaction after the WCIP was unanimously positive but also cautious.
”There is still much hard work to be done,” commented Sami delegate Josefina Skerk from Sweden.
Representatives from the world’s indigenous people had a prominent place on the global stage for a few days in New York. At the conference, they demonstrated that they are not alone in their struggle for rights, but rather constitute a global movement.
”It has been very valuable for me to meet with other indigenous communities, share experiences and see how similar our situations are all over the world. We share a lot, both history and the problems we are facing. Our strength is that there are many of us,” concluded Skerk before disappearing into the UN building.
Christin Sandberg is a Swedish journalist based in Guatemala. Christin follows human rights, indigenous and feminist grassroots movements and is interested in all kinds of expressions, such as art, politics and social movements, that can induce social change in society. Christin believes in diversity, equity and justice. Website: http://christinsandberg.wordpress.com