Press Releases

    SG/SM/9299
                                                                                                                            HR/4747
                                                                                                                            11 May 2004

    Despite Sea-Change in Global Attitudes, Indigenous Peoples still Suffer from Prejudice and Ill-Will, Secretary-General Tells Permanent Forum

    NEW YORK, 10 May (UN Headquarters) -- Following is Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s address to the opening of the third session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on 10 May:

    I welcome you all to the third session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and offer a special welcome to the indigenous women of the world, who are the special theme of this session.

    Just over 80 years ago, Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh travelled from Canada to Geneva to tell the League of Nations about the right of his people to live on their own land, follow their own laws and practise their own faiths.  Chief Deskaheh was refused permission to speak and had to return home without accomplishing his mission.  But his vision has inspired countless indigenous leaders since then to articulate and pursue the goals of their peoples.  You -- and we -- have come a long way since then.

    For far too long the hopes and aspirations of indigenous peoples have been ignored; their lands have been taken; their cultures denigrated or directly attacked; their languages and customs suppressed; their wisdom and traditional knowledge overlooked; and their sustainable ways of developing natural resources dismissed.  Some have even faced the threat of extinction.

    But the past three decades have witnessed a sea-change in global attitudes.  And the last 10 years -- the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People -- have been marked by many striking achievements for indigenous peoples at the United Nations, not least of which is the creation of this Forum.

    Its creation marked the climax of that dramatic shift in attitudes.  It challenges us to ensure that the rights of one of humanity’s most marginalized groups are not only heard and debated, but protected and upheld.

    Today, there are some 370 million indigenous people living in more than 70 countries, sometimes as majorities, but more often as minorities, and frequently in either voluntary or forced isolation.  Some are living within just a few miles of here on Native American reservations in nearby Long Island and Connecticut.

    Despite those gains I have mentioned, indigenous peoples continue to suffer from prejudice and ill-will.  In many cases, they are trapped in the middle of conflicts, conscripted into armed forces, faced with summary executions and relocated from their lands.  They are subject to extreme poverty, disease, environmental destruction and sometimes permanent displacement.

    The answer to these grave threats must be to confront them without delay.  History shows us that unless we grapple with such problems promptly and decisively, and in a spirit of solidarity and respect, they will only fester and deepen.

    If we are to make the twenty-first century the “age of prevention”, then the rest of humanity must enter into greater and more meaningful dialogue with indigenous peoples.  The motto of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People has been “partnership in action”.  The time has come to give more concrete meaning to those words.

    When I spoke at the first, historic session of the Permanent Forum two years ago, my message to you was simple:  you have a home here.  The UN system of agencies, funds and programmes is uniquely placed to help indigenous people overcome a history of discrimination and inequality.  I repeat that message today.

    The UN, governments, international organizations, civil society groups, private businesses and, above all, indigenous peoples themselves, can form partnerships to promote development, human rights and peace.  These partnerships will only work, however, if there is genuine participation of indigenous peoples in the decisions that affect them -- and if there is genuine sensitivity towards their cultures.

    In this vein, I endorse the inclusion of indigenous issues among the priorities of the United Nations Development Group for 2004.  I encourage all relevant parts of the UN system to build partnerships and assist the Permanent Forum in implementing its mandate.

    The pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 highlights the importance of these partnerships.  Indigenous peoples continue to suffer disproportionately from extreme poverty, child mortality, poor maternal health, barriers to primary education, and infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

    As part of our global effort to overcome these problems, we must develop schemes that specifically target indigenous peoples.  The UN will play its part in helping Member States to try to transform those Millennium Development Goals into indigenous realities.

    This year’s theme of the Permanent Forum draws attention to the vital role played by indigenous women -- not just in their communities, but in wider society as well.  Too often the voices of indigenous women are not heard.  Over the next two weeks -- and beyond -- I hope you will make certain that they are heard, and that you will find ways to ensure that our international instruments, from human rights mechanisms to development agreements to worldwide treaties, promote the rights of indigenous women and encourage their greater involvement in decision-making.

    It is heartening to see so many indigenous women here today, and to know that many more over the past few months have attended gatherings in Latin America, Asia and Africa to prepare regional declarations for presentation to this Forum.

    That is a welcome step, and it is also good that the Permanent Forum has identified indigenous children and youth as one of its priorities in the years ahead.  Among these children will be the leaders of tomorrow.  They need our help today to make sure they can achieve their full potential.  We must not fail them.

    I wish you every success at this year’s session of the Permanent Forum.  Thank you very much.

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