Geneva fights to retain UN body

Indigenous people have had a voice in Geneva for 20 years Keystone Archive

The Geneva authorities are battling to hold on to a United Nations agency representing indigenous peoples, which has been based in the city for 20 years.

This content was published on July 22, 2003 - 18:12

The agency looks set to be merged with another UN body in New York as part of internal cost-cutting measures.

The Geneva-based UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations is meeting this week to discuss globalisation issues – and its future.

Manuel Tornare, a member of the city council, is convinced that Geneva would offer the best home for a forum for indigenous peoples.

“Geneva is neither an imperial superpower, nor does it have the crimes of a colonial history hanging around its neck,” he said.

The Working Group has been promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples since 1982.

It is open to all representatives of indigenous peoples and their communities and organisations, and is one of the largest UN forums in the field of human rights.

Geneva centre

Earlier this year almost 1,000 delegates travelled to the Swiss city from around the world to draw attention to their plight.

They included minorities like those from the Amazonian rainforest who are unable to cope with ever-encroaching “civilisation”, according to Roberto Stavenhagen, a UN special rapporteur on the human rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples.

The Working Group champions ethnic populations under threat from governments and international consortiums seeking to exploit mineral resources.

For that reason its work is not always appreciated by all members of the UN.

The United States is said to favour the 16-strong Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues in New York, which was established in 2002.

It is made up of eight government representatives and eight delegates for indigenous peoples.

Centre for indigenous people

Last December the city council welcomed a suggestion by the Working Group to set up a permanent forum in Geneva for indigenous peoples, with full diplomatic status and its own embassy.

The authorities declared they were willing to offer the UN a building for the token price of SFr1 ($0.74).

“A permanent delegation of indigenous peoples at the UN is inevitable,” commented Tornare.

The Swiss foreign ministry has so far refused to be drawn on the merits of Geneva over New York.

Spokesman Gérald Pachoud said it still had to be established whether both UN bodies were complementary.

swissinfo, Helen Brügger of InfoSüd (translation: Tania Peitzker)

Key facts

Geneva is the European headquarters of the United Nations.
New York is home to the UN's world headquarters.
Switzerland joined the UN in September 2002, as the organisation's 190th member.

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In brief

The Working Group on Indigenous Populations is holding its 21st session from the July 21-25 in the Palais des Nations at the United Nations in Geneva.

The Working Group is fighting for its existence. There are fears that the UN might merge the agency with the newly-established Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues in New York.

There is concern that the new body is less independent because half its members are made up of government representatives.

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