The United Nations has done much to protect indigenous peoples but there is much more needed. That was the message delivered at the United Nations on October 12, 2018, by Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, during the Seventy-third Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Third Committee Item 71: Rights of indigenous peoples in New York.
Archbishop Auza’s Full Statement:
Over the last two decades, the United Nations has made significant progress in promoting and protecting the cultural values, patrimony and human rights of indigenous peoples, as well as in providing them with opportunities to become protagonists of their own cultural and social development. Perhaps the best example has been the adoption of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) with the increasing commitment of States to its implementation. The active participation of Indigenous peoples alongside States each year at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) also remains an important and practical example of solidarity for the entire international community.
Despite progress made, the environmental, cultural and spiritual patrimony of many indigenous populations remains under significant threat. At the local and national level, both economic and ideological colonization, imposed under the banner of so-called progress, continue to be carried out without concern for the human rights of indigenous peoples or for the environment in which they live.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Amazon basin, where new forms of mining and the extraction of valuable minerals and other resources by large corporations and business interests have led to devastating environmental degradation and deforestation, as well as the displacement of persons. Similarly, many seemingly well-intentioned land conservation policies and movements that intend to protect the natural environment and preserve biodiversity have led to the disruption of local economies and of the lives of the indigenous peoples who live there.
Without access to their own land, indigenous peoples, and especially the young, are often forced to migrate, in search of alternative forms of employment and education. This, in turn, sends many indigenous peoples into precarious situations of poverty and vulnerability, as they face discrimination and difficulty in finding work in the cities to where they are forced to flee.
We must break with the historical paradigm that views the Amazon and other resource-rich regions of our world as inexhaustible sources of wealth, simply to be exploited. We must also ensure that efforts at conservation and the protection of the natural environment take into consideration the rights and livelihood of the indigenous peoples who call those regions home.
First and foremost, this demands that they be included as principal partners in every deliberation that directly affects them. This includes the right to maintain their own institutions and to participate in the decision-making processes of the State and of other actors, as highlighted in the recent report of the Special Rapporteur on rights of indigenous peoples. From the perspective of the Holy See, this also means recognizing and giving preference to those beneficial initiatives that indigenous communities and organizations are already undertaking. This is an expression of our strong support for the right of all indigenous peoples to self-determination.
Indigenous peoples command an immense cultural reserve and set of living traditions that must be preserved and defended. The disappearance of their culture and way of life can be as serious as or even more serious than the loss of biodiversity or damage to our common home and ecological reserve. Assisting them to preserve their culture and traditions should remain our commitment moving forward.
As Pope Francis recently reminded us, “The recognition of [indigenous] people – who can never be considered a minority, but rather authentic dialogue partners – … reminds us that we are not the absolute owners of creation. We need urgently to appreciate the essential contribution that they bring to society as a whole, and not reduce their cultures to an idealized image of a natural state, much less a kind of museum of a bygone way of life. Their cosmic vision and their wisdom have much to teach those of us who are not part of their culture.” I thank you.
1. Pope Francis, Address at the Meeting with Indigenous People of Amazonia in Puerto Maldonado (Peru), 19 January 2018.
2. Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, submitted in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 33/12 (A/73/176).
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