UN: Nations need to do more to defend Indigenous rights

Two months ago, Makanalani Gomes, a Native Hawaiian activist, spoke about the importance of youth self-determination at the largest global gathering of Indigenous peoples at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. After flying back to Hawaiʻi, she had one major takeaway from the event, known as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues:

“The need for sovereignty for all Indigenous peoples is critical, is paramount, to us literally surviving,” said Gomes, reflecting on the forum Wednesday. 

Gomesʻ conclusion isn’t just her opinion. It’s a message that underpins a new report released this week by the United Nations summarizing the official recommendations from this year’s gathering. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is a United Nations advisory body dedicated to representing the perspectives of Indigenous peoples who otherwise would not have a voice in the U.N. General Assembly.

The final report is a a 30-page list that details a broad list of recommendations aimed at specific countries, international agencies, and U.N. member states. 

While this year’s forum wasn’t officially climate-focused, attendees spoke again and again about how climate disasters, environmental degradation, and other modern-day challenges are rooted in the exploitation of Native land and how the green energy transition compounds that exploitation. 

The final report urges U.N. agencies to do more to ensure carbon credit programs are effective and not harmful. Carbon credit programs are intended to decrease carbon emissions, but Indigenous advocates say they in practice divide and exploit Indigenous peoples. 

“The Forum urges the secretariats of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to demand high-integrity projects that have clear accountability for carbon emissions and biodiversity as well as measured benefits for Indigenous Peoples,” the report said. 

All four United Nations bodies are invited to report on their work at next year’s Permanent Forum gathering in New York City, the report said. 

U.N. agencies should stop conflating Indigenous peoples with the more amorphous term “local communities,” which could dilute Indigenous rights, the report advised. 

The Permanent Forum also repeatedly called on the need for more climate funding for Indigenous peoples and the importance of involving Indigenous peoples in efforts to establish more protected areas. “Conservation efforts worldwide must recognize and respect the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples to their lands, territories and resources,” the report said. 

The final report also urges specific countries to respect Indigenous peoples. In particular, the Permanent Forum said it regretted the outcome of Australia’s failed referendum last year that would have given Indigenous people an official voice in government. 

Repeatedly, the reportʻs recommendations refer to the need to support Indigenous peoplesʻ right to self-determination.

“The Forum further recommends that States engage in processes focused on decolonization and reconciliation policies that facilitate the path of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination, with the full and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples,” the report said. 

That message is on Gomes’ mind this week as she participates in another major gathering of Indigenous peoples, this time a festival celebrating Indigenous Pacific peoples in Hawaiʻi. On Wednesday, canoes were officially welcomed to Hawaiʻi after sailing  thousands of miles across the Pacific without compasses, navigating through Indigenous knowledge of the stars and waves.

Gomes thought about how the crews had sailed from independent Pacific nations to the Hawaiian archipelago that is dominated by the American flag. 

“We are not free until we all are free,” she said. 


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