High Level Plenary Meeting of the UN General Assembly, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (22–23 September 2014)

On 22 and 23 September 2014 the United Nations General Assembly (GA) held the first ever High Level Plenary Meeting devoted to Indigenous Peoples (IP), known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (HLPM/WCIP). From the mid-1990s onwards, calls had been made for the organisation of a world conference on Indigenous Peoples by IP representatives, the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, particularly in connection to the conclusion of the first International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. However, the decision to organise a high level plenary meeting, to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, in the final year of the second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was a unilateral decision taken in 2010 by UN Member States (see here, here and here), without prior consultation with IP.

Nevertheless, through their sustained engagement and largely united strategy, IP representatives at the international level succeeded in ensuring an unprecedented level of IP participation in the preparatory process for the HLPM/WCIP, as well as during the meeting itself, setting an important precedent. This participation included notably:

  • The work undertaken by John Henriksen (Sami, Norway) as the Indigenous co-facilitator, chosen by IP and designated by the President of the GA (PGA), Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser (Qatar), in April 2012 alongside a state co-facilitator, Luis Alfonso de Alba (Permanent Representative of Mexico), in conducting consultations and negotiations in relation to the modalities of organising the HLPM/WCIP (work which led to the adoption by the GA of the ‘Modalities Resolution’ in September 2012);
  • The work undertaken by Les Malezer (Gubbi Gubbi–Butchulla, Australia) and Mirna Cunningham (Miskita, Nicaragua) as the two Indigenous advisers chosen by IP and designated by the PGA, John W. Ashe (Antigua and Barbuda), in mid-2014 to work alongside the PGA, his designate, Crispin Gregoire (formerly Permanent Representative of the Commonwealth of Dominica), and two state advisers, Eduardo Ulibarri (Permanent Representative of Costa Rica) and Andrej Logar (Permanent Representative of Slovenia), who was subsequently replaced by Marjon Kamara (Permanent Representative of Liberia), in conducting informal consultations and negotiations and drafting the ‘concise and action-oriented’ HLPM/WCIP outcome document;
  • The comparatively high level of consultation with IP representatives alongside State representatives during the UN’s official preparatory process, particularly through the informal interactive hearing and the three rounds of informal consultations conducted from June to August 2014 by the PGA, his designate and four advisers, in relation to drafting the HLPM/WCIP outcome document to be adopted as a resolution of the GA (although the final process of negotiation and the adoption itself were intergovernmental activities);
  • During the HLPM itself, in accordance with the Modalities Resolution, IP representatives were given a prominent role alongside Member States and were able to participate extensively in the round table and panel discussion interactive debates.

In advocating for this high level of IP participation throughout the preparatory process for the HLPM/WCIP, IP representatives emphasised that their full and effective participation on an equal footing with States was the minimum standard required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), notably in reference to IP rights to self-determination and to participate in decision-making affecting them. In their view, a HLPM/WCIP without such IP participation would consequently violate recognised IP rights and would lack legitimacy.

The (compromise) decision of the GA to hold a high level plenary meeting rather than a full world conference on Indigenous Peoples meant that significantly less UN and State resources were allocated to preparatory meetings, conferences and processes in the four years leading up to the event. Recognising this, and working proactively to engage with and influence the HLPM/WCIP process, IP representatives at the international level established an Indigenous Global Coordinating Group (GCG) in 2012, with a mandate to coordinate and facilitate regional and global IP preparations and engagement with the process in order to safeguard IP rights and interests and ensure a favourable outcome for IP. The GCG was constituted by two members from each of the seven IP regional caucuses and two ‘thematic’ caucuses (Women and Youth), and was assisted by a permanent Secretariat.

The GCG took a leading role in defining the collective strategy of IP engaging at the international level with the HLPM/WCIP process, including notably the adoption of a unified global IP position on the desired outcomes of the meeting, which would form the basis of IP lobbying efforts at the national and international levels. To this end, the GCG played a key role in organising nine regional/caucus IP preparatory meetings between October 2012 and April 2013. Each of these initial meetings produced an outcome document with the regional/caucus priorities for the HLPM/WCIP (1). In turn, these initial meetings and outcome documents fed into a global IP preparatory meeting in June 2013, hosted by the Sami Parliament in Alta, Norway. During this meeting, which united over 600 IP representatives and observers, the Alta Outcome Document (AOD), a global document of IP priorities for the HLPM/WCIP, was drafted and adopted by consensus by all seven regions and the Women and Youth caucuses (see here). The consequently high level legitimacy of the AOD was subsequently stressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, who identified it as ‘an important normative and programmatic instrument and plan of action in its own right’, beyond the HLPM/WCIP and regardless of that meeting’s outcome (2).

From June to September 2014, the AOD informed the work of the two Indigenous advisers in the process of drafting and negotiating the HLPM/WCIP outcome document, as well as the work of the IP lobby team that was based in New York during this period, funded and coordinated by the GCG and composed of one or more IP representatives from each region/caucus (3). The major guiding principle adopted by these key IP actors, who were the primary interlocutors of the international IP movement with UN Member States and the PGA during the negotiation of the HLPM/WCIP outcome document, was to accept nothing falling below the minimum standards established by UNDRIP, a principle articulated clearly in the Preamble of the AOD and subsequently enshrined in operative paragraph (OP) 4 of the HLPM/WCIP outcome document itself. Their second guiding principle was to avoid the reiteration or definition of IP rights, so as to avoid potential restrictive State (re)interpretations, and focus on strong State and UN commitments to implementing UNDRIP and IP rights more broadly at the local, national and international levels. The work of these IP representatives was supported and at times taken up by a group of so-called ‘friendly States’ (4), particularly when IP were formally excluded from participating directly in intergovernmental negotiations and UN processes.

Following from this lengthy and complex period of preparations, the HLPM/WCIP took place at UN Headquarters in New York on 22 and 23 September 2014. As a result of the large numbers of IP representatives, NGOs and others who had registered for the event, an overflow room with a live audio-visual feed was set up for each session of the meeting. The degree of high-level State and UN attendance throughout the HLPM/WCIP, but particularly on its second day, and the overall prominence of the event for the broader public appear to have been negatively impacted by the convening by the UN Secretary General of the Climate Summit at UN Headquarters in New York on 23 September. The Climate Summit and environmental issues and activism (including the hugely successful People’s Climate March) consequently largely overshadowed the HLPM/WCIP, despite their overlapping concerns.

The HLPM/WCIP began on the morning of 22 September with an opening plenary session held in the General Assembly Hall, during which an opening prayer was given by an IP leader from the New York area, Chief Sidd Hill of the Haudenosaunee; high-level UN (including the PGA and the Secretary General), Member State and IP representatives took the floor to give opening remarks; and the final HLPM/WCIP outcome document was formally adopted by the GA.

One of the more notable interventions during this meeting was made by Dalee Sambo Dorough, Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII). In her statement, Sambo Dorough directly addressed what had proven to be one of the major stumbling blocks for negotiations between IPs and some Member States, and between Member States themselves during the HLPM/WCIP process: the international legal status and binding or non-binding character of UNDRIP. Sambo Dorough stressed that the right of all peoples, including IP, to self-determination is a pre-emptory norm of international law, and articulated a strong position on the legally binding nature of key IP rights contained in UNDRIP. She thus affirmed:

even though the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as a whole, is not an expression of customary international law, some of its key provisions can reasonably be regarded as corresponding to established principles of general international law, therefore implying the existence of equivalent and parallel international obligations to which states are bound to comply with. The relevant areas of Indigenous Peoples’ rights with respect to which the discourse on customary international law arises are: self-determination, the right to self-determination of Indigenous Peoples; autonomy, or self-government; cultural rights and identity; land rights, as well as reparation, redress and remedies.

Moreover, the PFII Chair alluded to the limitations of the HLPM/WCIP process, and stressed that:

In addition to the objectives of the hastily negotiated [HLPM/WCIP] outcome document, with the limited and carefully controlled participation of Indigenous Peoples from across the globe, the pre-emptory norms of international law and customary international law principles remain essential and constant parameters for all future dialogue negotiation and implementation of the individual and collective human rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In conclusion, Sambo Dorough launched the following appeal: ‘Finally, let us ensure that not only are we guided by legal imperatives and international legal obligations, but also by moral imperatives.’

In the afternoon of the 22 September, two parallel round table sessions were held on the themes of ‘UN system action for the implementation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples’ and ‘Implementing the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the national and local level’. On the afternoon of 23 September, two further parallel sessions were held: one roundtable on the theme of ‘Indigenous Peoples’ lands, territories and resources’ and one panel discussion on ‘Indigenous priorities for the post-2015 sustainable development agenda’. The themes of these four sessions broadly reflected the four themes of the AOD, as demanded by the IP involved in the HLPM/WCIP process. These sessions were each co-chaired by one State and one IP representative, and the invited presenters/panellists also included IP representatives from the various regions/caucuses. The interventions of these speakers were followed by ‘interactive dialogues’, with short, written statements being read by registered participants (IP, State, UN, NGO, academic, and so on) who had previously had their names inscribed on the list of speakers. As in many other UN fora, this artificial ‘dialogue’ was consequently far from interactive, and generally fell well short of concretely progressing any of the issues being addressed, including particularly that of the implementation of the HLPM/WCIP outcome document itself.

The closing plenary meeting was held on the evening of 23 September, with short summaries presented by a co-chair from each round table/panel discussion (available here); general closing statements made by the PGA, the UN Deputy Secretary General, and a representative of IP with a disability; and a closing prayer by Pita Sharples, who is both an Indigenous Maori and a government Minister of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

The HLPM/WCIP outcome document contains 40 OP, dealing with various aspects of the implementation of IP rights at the local, national and international levels. According to some IP representatives who were involved in the process, one of the major achievements of the HLPM/WCIP was precisely the adoption by the GA of such an outcome document focused on the implementation of UNDRIP, given the strength this lends to their contention that UNDRIP articulates legally binding rights and obligations, despite the insistence by various States that, as a declaration of the GA, it is a strictly non-binding, aspirational document.

While the HLPM/WCIP outcome document fell far short of the demands made in the AOD, and had been progressively weakened by numerous States during the negotiation process despite the efforts made by IP representatives and the group of ‘friendly States’, a general consensus appears to have been shared by the IP representatives who attended the HLPM/WCIP that the outcome document was a good result, representing a necessary compromise with States and the best possible outcome IP could have achieved in the contemporary context. This pragmatism and realism in relation to the HLPM/WCIP process and its possible outcomes is informed by a long-term perspective and engagement of IP representatives working in the international arena: by their knowledge of the significant progress that has already been made and a belief in the potential for and necessity of future progress in the recognition, implementation and respect of IP rights, tempered by an awareness of the remaining obstacles to achieving those goals and IP self-determination.

 

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Further information on the HLPM/WCIP, the full programme, videos of the event and relevant documentation can be found on the following websites:

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Notes:

(1) These documents can be downloaded under the ‘Meetings’, ‘Regions & Caucuses’ tabs on the GCG’s website.

(2) This quotation reflects the oral statement made by Anaya during the 6th Session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 8–12 July 2013, Geneva.

(3) While the North American IP Caucus officially left the GCG and withdrew from the HLPM/WCIP process in March 2014 (in response to the PGA’s initial decision not to re-appoint an IP co-facilitator on an equal footing with a State co-facilitator for the last phase of the preparations), a number of North American IP groups and representatives remained engaged with the process and were present alongside the GCG and its lobby team for the consultations and negotiations on the outcome document.

(4) This group of ‘friendly States’ in relation to the HLPM/WCIP ultimately comprised: Mexico (which coordinated the group), Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Brazzaville, Colombia, Congo, Denmark, Finland, Guatemala, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Peru and Spain.

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