Conflicts in Countries
& the Security Council


The Critical Significance of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations

The office of the Anglican Observer has been deeply involved with the ongoing struggle of indigenous peoples since the beginning of the ministry in the early 1990's. Among other activities, the Observer actively participated in the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, which is their primary vehicle for NGO representation at the UN. The current Anglican Observer, Archdeacon Taimalelagi Matalavea, an indigenous person from Samoa, was recently quoted on the website of the Anglican Indigenous People’s Network (AIN) in saying that indigenous minority issues at the United Nations are one of her priorities.

Although indigenous peoples have been making their voices heard there for over 75 years, their concerns became especially prominent in 1993, which the UN proclaimed as the "International Year for the World¹s Indigenous People." The purpose of that designated year was to create a "new partnership" between the UN, its member States, and indigenous peoples. However, as the Working Group aptly insisted, the correct term should not have been "people," but "peoples" in order to express accurately the tremendous diversity among the millions of indigenous peoples living in all parts of the world. This concern was about much more than the meaning of words. It was about continuing attempts to silence their voices and to deny their basic human rights, sometimes leading to genocide. As one member of the Working Group put it, "we are human beings living today; we do not live in a museum; we are not a thing of the past." This statement summarized well, as it still does, the many obstacles faced by indigenous peoples everywhere and everyday.

The Working Group on Indigenous Peoples and other NGOs representing them at the UN have effectively brought these severe problems to the halls of the United Nations, but the forces acting to destroy them and their homelands continue. The goal of the "new partnership," which was to create a post-colonial relationship between indigenous peoples and member States has not been achieved. Archbishop Sir Paul Reeves, the first Anglican Observer, described this situation by saying indigenous peoples are not seen "as citizens, but as subjects" in a colonial dynamic that has not essentially changed over several centuries. Part of the reason for this is that tribal territories are not usually given legal status by the countries in which they geographically exist. At the UN, "sovereignty" applies to the citizens and laws of member States, rather than to people who exist either outside or at the margins of those States. This situation creates ambiguity in the official identification of indigenous peoples, who live as minorities in their own countries, but do not receive full rights to make decisions for themselves about their own lives. The concept of sovereignty employed by most States both deprives indigenous peoples of fundamental religious, economic, and political rights and supports exploitative economic development strategies, which destroy ecological systems. In other words, indigenous peoples are marginalized in the most severe sense of the word. The testimony of their experience calls into question the effectiveness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as truly "universal." It is for that reason that the
ministry of the Anglican Observer has taken a special interest in them and the issues they bring to the UN.

In recent years, the struggle of indigenous peoples has often been directed toward the legal recognition of their "intellectual property" in its many forms, including cultural knowledge, which has diverse practical and sacred uses. Examples of this intellectual property are the medicinal and ecological knowledge of plants, animals, and land usage practices in the ecosystems in which indigenous peoples live. The question of adequate and equitable financial compensation is crucial here, as well as the basic human right of preserving that knowledge as part of, their own cultural tradition Also, the preservation of this cultural knowledge and the vitality of the people who hold it are crucial to the sustainability of those ecosystems.

The Office of the Anglican Observer takes the position that indigenous peoples and the issues they bring to the UN are anything but marginal. They should be at the center of policy-making in virtually all matters pertaining to human rights, sustainable development, and the environment. They are at the heart of the ongoing struggle for all humankind to become more humane at a critical time in human history.

Published by the Anglican Communion Office ©2002 Anglican Consultative Council