Strengthening the voice of indigenous people

Today, there are over 370 million indigenous people in about 90 countries worldwide. They have unique cultures and ways of relating to other people and the environment with social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from the dominant societies in which they live. Despite cultural differences, the various indigenous peoples around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples look to the international community to promote, protect and respect their ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources. However, these rights continue to be violated. Indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations today. The international community has recognized this and is working to protect their rights.

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is one of three UN bodies mandated to deal specifically with indigenous peoples’ issues. The Forum acts as an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.

The first session of the Forum was held in May 2002 and it continues to meet annually for two weeks each year. According to its mandate, the goal of the Forum is to: provide expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the Council; raise awareness and promote the integration and coordination of activities related to indigenous issues within the UN system; and prepare and disseminate information on indigenous issues.

The Forum will meet this month for the tenth session to review recommendations and implementation made at previous sessions. Since the last session, fourteen new members have joined the Forum, while only two have served previously. Hundreds of participants are expected to attend the event to discuss topics related to Economic and Social Development, the Environment and Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

Recommendations and Implementation

At the first nine sessions, the Forum made hundreds of recommendations to the UN System and Member States as well as to indigenous organizations. Roughly half of the Forum’s proposals have been acted upon. During this time, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted while the UN Development Group issued Guidelines on Indigenous Peoples Issues. The international community has made some progress and become increasingly involved in recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples. However, these rights are not always implemented. This gap between recognition and realization has been called the implementation gap and will be one of the key points emphasized by the Permanent Forum.


Water is a human right and a necessity to sustain life. In recent years, there has been a stronger and growing demand for access to safe drinking water and sanitation to be considered as a human right. In 2010, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that called upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, build capacity and transfer technology to improve efforts to provide safe, clean accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

At the tenth session, the Permanent Forum will devote a half day discussion on the right to water and indigenous peoples. This discussion is expected to highlight some of the issues that indigenous peoples currently face as well as bring forward input into current UN processes involving water rights.

A regional focus on Latin America and the Caribbean

Each year the Permanent Forum devotes a half day discussion to a specific region. This year, the Forum will discuss indigenous peoples’ issues in the Latin America and Caribbean region. This will include the participation of indigenous peoples from the region in an active engagement of the UN system. Some of the issues that are expected to arise include constitutional reforms, intercultural and plurinational states, the criminalization of protest and the cocoa leaf.

In July 2010, the Forum conducted a mission trip to Colombia, at the invitation of the Colombian government, to observe the situation and threats to indigenous people. The Forum looked specifically at victims of abuse related to the armed conflict and in danger of extinction and the Awá people. Many of the Awá people are displaced and facing many hostilities, while others are at risk of losing their land due to a lack of education. At the conclusion of this visit, the Forum made about 60 recommendations to the Government as well as the UN system.

Looking to the Future

The General Assembly has decided to organize a World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014 on the realization of the rights of indigenous peoples, including pursuing the objectives of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Permanent Forum will play a key role in determining the modalities of the World Conference.

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