The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues continued its first historic session in morning and afternoon meetings today with a review of the activities of the United Nations system regarding to education, culture and human rights as they impact indigenous peoples.
This morning, in the discussion of education and culture, the representative of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said that the objectives of the United Nations Decade for Indigenous Peoples guided the agency's actions in preserving cultural diversity to safeguard the unique nature of indigenous cultures. In addition, the 2001 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity provided the normative framework for its work.
The year 2002 had been proclaimed the United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage, he said. A priority of the year was the elaboration of practical methods to preserve the rich oral wealth of indigenous cultures, many of which were in danger of disappearing. He emphasized the need to encourage the development of an integrated concept of education, including the use of native languages and universal literacy, to enable individuals to adapt to the socio-cultural environment in which they lived.
The representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said the special needs of the indigenous child included a quality education which respected its cultural identity, language and values. It was especially important to reach the most marginalized and vulnerable in that way. In promoting and evaluating bilingual education, UNICEF worked with national agencies.
In the discussion that followed the presentations of the two agencies, representatives of indigenous peoples emphasized the need for respect for the traditional knowledge of their cultures. At the same time, quality education that included literacy and international knowledge was essential to decrease marginalization and poverty. Too often, the poorest quality teachers and the least resources were provided for their children, where education was available, there was a severe drop-out problem, they said. Support was needed for indigenous curriculum development that involved community elders. In both education and culture, the fundamental issue, it was said, was survival.
As the subject turned to human rights this afternoon, the representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the Commission on Human Rights was engaged in both normative and promotional activities to develop and disseminate information on rights for indigenous peoples. He elaborated on related training, educational and monitoring activities. Within the much broader mandate of human rights for all peoples, particularly important on the current occasion was the notion that human rights and development were mutually reinforcing.
He requested that participants consider how the broad range of human rights activities, including the special rapporteurs on topics and countries could better serve indigenous issues. It was also important to determine how operational treaty standards could serve the issues at hand. Priority areas should be identified.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) had been addressing indigenous issues in a comprehensive manner for decades, its representative said this afternoon, working for progressive conventions that had moved, over time, from a paternalistic approach to one in which peoples' representatives have played a significant role. She described Convention number 169, which covered land rights, access to national resources, health, education, vocational training, conditions of employment, and contact across borders. Most importantly, it emphasized the need to take diverse cultures into account in all processes.
Other ILO programmes of interest, she said, aimed to increase dialogue between indigenous peoples and governments; improve their socio-economic condition and combat human trafficking and child labour. It was ILO's hope that the Permanent Forum could, through global awareness of the situation of indigenous peoples, speed up the improvement of universal human rights conditions.
As the discussion on human rights got under way at the end of this afternoon's meeting, one NGO representative asked how it would be possible to make governments understand that self-determination did not necessarily mean secession. Self-determination, he said, was the backbone of indigenous rights.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow morning to continue its discussion of human rights from the perspective of indigenous peoples.