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Fate of indigenous peoples debated in Geneva

Indigenous peoples from all over the world have been meeting at the United Nations in Geneva. The annual talks come as the UN prepares to create an influential new body with the task of defending indigenous rights.

This content was published on July 27, 2000 - 17:20

Those taking part in the gathering include Lapps and Samis from the Arctic to Australian Aborigines, Canadian Inuits and Kalahari Bushmen.

The Geneva talks, held under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have been tackling a wide range of contentious issues, including land rights, the use of resources on those lands, the protection of cultural heritage and, perhaps most importantly, the role of young people.

"The children of indigenous people have many more problems than other children," said Pierrette Birraux-Ziegler, head of the Swiss non-governmental group, Docip.

She told swissinfo that young indigenous people have much higher rates of suicide, unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse, and are more likely to be targeted by the police.

"This is a crucial topic for indigenous people, because their children are the future and vital for maintaining their culture," said Birraux-Ziegler.

Docip, or the Indigenous Peoples' Centre for Documentation, Research and Information, provides services and equipment to indigenous people. It runs a documentation service so that native people can be kept abreast of the latest UN developments that affect them. It also provides translators and computers.

Docip was set up in 1977 to help the native peoples of the Americas. It now helps 5,000 indigenous groups from all over the globe, or five per cent of the world's population.

Birraux-Ziegler says it's difficult to say if the rights are better respected now than they were when Docip was founded: "There are two worlds: the world of the UN which sets the standards, and then you have the realities in the countries themselves, which aren't always that good."

While some countries, like Australia and Canada, have passed legislation granting their indigenous populations more rights, other countries have been slow to enact and implement anti-discrimination laws.

Another problem is that there is only one binding international document protecting the rights of indigenous people - the International Labour Organisation's Convention 169.

"But what has improved is the conscioussness of these people. They're now far better organised, they use the internet to strengthen their networks. This is very important for empowering them," said Birraux-Ziegler.

If one development has overshadowed the conference it is the decision to create a Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples, which will be under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc)

Until now, questions relating to indigenous peoples have been dealt with by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or specialised agencies. Now all these issues can be dealt with together, and at a much higher level.

"There was a political aim, because Ecosoc is closer to the General Assembly," said Birraux-Ziegler. "But more importantly, they want the permanent forum to coordinate the work of all the specialised agencies, because indigenous people have a holistic approach."

"To them, the questions of health, land rights, human rights, self-determination and so on are not separate. With the permanent forum, they will be able to deal with these issues in conformity with their culture and not in conformity with the UN system," she added.

by Roy Probert

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