Economic development must not be at expense of indigenous rights – UN forum chief

27 May 2009

Economic development activities, whether government infrastructure projects or mineral extraction by corporations, must not infringe on the rights of indigenous peoples, the head of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said today.

Free, prior and informed consent should be obtained before development projects proceed on indigenous territories, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the Forum, told reporters in New York, as she briefed on the body’s eighth session.

She pointed out that this is a basic principle enshrined in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a landmark text adopted in 2007 outlining the rights of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people and outlawing discrimination against them.

The Chairperson warned of possible violations of indigenous rights amid the current global economic crisis, as governments and international financial institutions increase their infrastructure budgets in a bid to boost sagging economies.

The Forum was told by the World Bank that it has increased its infrastructure budget from $15 billion to $45 billion this year. “This has caused a great alarm for us because they are going to also weaken their safeguard mechanisms so that these infrastructure projects can be implemented in a very fast pace,” said Ms. Tauli-Corpuz.

She noted that in Canada, for example, much of the increase in the infrastructure budget is going to be used for building highways that are cutting across indigenous peoples’ territories, and which are going to facilitate the entry of extractive industries like oil, gas and mineral companies into these lands.

“These issues are very hard to reconcile because of course we do understand the need to make our economies survive this crisis,” she said. “But, on the other hand, this should not be done at the expense of indigenous peoples’ lives, which means either displacement or destruction of their territories.”

She stated that in addition to compensating indigenous peoples when building in their territories, they should also be involved in the design of projects to ensure that they do not cut across sacred sites, for example.

The Forum has engaged the office of the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on business and human rights on these issues, and has agreed to support a proposed framework that rests on three pillars.

The first is the duty of the State to protect against human rights abuses by third parties including transnational corporations and other business enterprises through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudication.

The framework also emphasizes the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, as well as greater access for victims and effective remedies, both judicial and non-judicial.

Some 2,000 indigenous representatives from all regions of the world are participate in the Forum’s eighth session, as well as representatives of Member States, civil society, academia, some 35 UN entities and other intergovernmental organizations.

Other issues on its current agenda include climate change, the Arctic region and land tenure.

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