[This originally appeared in the Spinoff Ātea on 29 April 2018]
Law professor Valmaine Toki is purported to have described the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as a “huge Waitangi Tribunal.” Did she mean unpopular, underfunded and ignored or an opportunity for indigenous peoples to tell our story and achieve some semblance of justice?
Probably a bit of both.
Two delegations of Māori youth travelled to the Forum, the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute-endorsed group specifically to bring attention to the potential new mega-prison to be built at Waikeria.
Another tāngata whenua youth delegation also attended with Dr Lance O’Sullivan’s Moko Foundation to discuss indigenous health issues, after a wildly successful social media campaign looking for delegates.
What did they find in New York?
The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was established in 2000 and is one of three bodies at the United Nations that deals with indigenous issues. The theme in April this year was ‘collective rights to lands, territories and resources’ and the forum winds up today after two weeks.
The Forum includes submissions and presentations from nation states, UN officials, Human Rights organisations and indigenous peoples. The Forum put out a specific questionnaire related to the theme that gives an insight into some of the challenges and opportunities for indigenous people around the world.
As tāngata whenua, the questionnaires reveal that the indigenous experience worldwide is a combination of the known and the alien. In the Fourth World, we are like and not alike.
In Australia, the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council reported on the demonstrable lack of progress in building relationships with the federal or state government. Whilst the government has signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, there have been no efforts to develop a national or local plan of action to implement the aspirations of the declaration. And of course, no formal settlement or treaty to provide real protection to the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and New South Wales or federal government is on the horizon.
I can’t say I was surprised.
Meanwhile in Benin, the Research and Action Group for Wellbeing in Benin has worked with the Benin government and the UN on the ‘Project of Integration of Sacred Forests in the protected area system of Benin’. Not the catchiest title, but it is an international initiative under the ICCA Consortium that sees forests identified as sacred by indigenous communities being integrated into protected areas. For the indigenous people of Benin, this has ensured that development projects and/or extractive activities have been delayed and stopped because they do not have the consent of the indigenous peoples.
The situation for the Nation of Hawai’i is frankly dire. The USA has failed to recognise collective rights of Kānaka Maoli who are excluded from federal laws and policies that support and protect other indigenous communities in the USA. This is because Kānaka Maoli are not considered an indigenous nation in the USA, just indigenous individuals, so they have no protection for self-determination. The development on Mauna Kea is a case in point; they have no obvious legal pathway to delay developments as the indigenous community.
Finally, in the Philippines, the Coalition Against Land Grabbing is a body for the Pala’wan, Tagbanuwa and Batak indigenous populations. They are actively battling agribusinesses that are seeking to strip their environments and communities. Standing up is a life threatening act there; they work closely with the Indigenous Environmental and Human Rights Defenders, especially when facing death threats and victimisation. Whilst there is an Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act that enshrines their rights, the agency tasked with fulfilling the Act is snail-pace slow and governance at all levels is corrupt, paid off by agribusiness and other corporations.
That there is a Forum at which these issues can be raised seems very laudable. But does it achieve anything?
Firstly, it is clear that the funded activities and programmes of the UN are focused on poorer countries in which indigenous issues struggle for air against corruption, poverty and developmental needs. Given the constrained budgets, this is likely the best use of that resource.
When you consider our situation in Aotearoa New Zealand, we have a comparatively strong legislative and judicial framework and a mature indigenous rights sector. As tāngata whenua we have many strong Māori leaders and communities and – dare I say it – can assume a basic recognition amongst the majority of our country’s population that Māori and indigenous issues are part of our national identity, dialogue and development.
So we probably don’t need to go to the Forum with our hand out for them to run programmes.
However, what we also have in Aotearoa is an often toxic media and political environment that tends towards the insubstantial and petty. Some of our “commentators” and”reporters” are always poised to chew up and spit out people who want to step outside the status quo.
Learning political activism and lobbying for indigenous issues is too threatening an act for too many people; so it is nigh impossible to find your space in the public square to speak, to debate, to argue. You will reap mockery, derision and a hideous examination of your own person.
This is where the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the like are so essential for Aotearoa New Zealand. They are forums outside of this country where Māori, Moana people, youth, communities of minorities and the excluded can learn the skills to storm the palisades back here.
The wonderful rangatahi in New York will return more sophisticated communicators. They returned with a better judgement of what is an issue and what is a distraction. They spent two weeks having been encouraged to articulate ideals and vision. So when they returned, they returned more resilient and, I pray, less likely to bow their head to the jaded and cynical here.