|The Consultation on Indigenous Peoples’ and Minorities’ Issues brought together approximately 40 participants, drawing from UNICEF senior management and practitioners, and external experts.|
By Amy Bennett
NEW YORK, USA, 16 April 2009 – Personal testimonies led to an intense and passionate dialogue at the opening of the Consultation on Indigenous Peoples’ and Minorities’ Issues, hosted by UNICEF in New York yesterday. Several speakers related stories of their own struggles, highlighting the critical need for increased awareness of the rights of indigenous and minority populations.
The consultation brought together approximately 40 participants, including members of UNICEF’s senior management team; UNICEF practitioners involved in the design and implementation of programmes for indigenous or minority children and families; and external experts. The meeting consisted of a series of plenary sessions, followed by working group discussions.
One of the consultation’s main purposes was to reach a consensus and common understanding about UNICEF’s engagement with indigenous and minority communities. The end goal is a ‘roadmap’ to better understand and tackle the challenges they face.
Exclusion and discrimination
There are some 5,000 ethnic groups in the world, and more than 200 countries have significant minority ethnic or religious communities. Almost 900 million people belong to groups that experience disadvantages as a result of their minority standing.
“Worldwide, it’s discrimination,” said UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues Gay McDougall, referring to the biggest challenge facing these populations. “And the UN should be there to protect the rights of minorities.”
Exclusion in all its forms is a common thread for both indigenous people and minority groups. The risk of exclusion from essential services – and from protection – is very high for indigenous and minority children, and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity often deprives them of opportunities for growth and development.
|An indigenous girl from the San ethnic group sits with her mother outside their home in a squatter settlement in Epako, a sprawling suburb of the town of Gobabis in Omaheke Region, Namibia.|
“If you don’t have knowledge of the rights of the child, how can you assure that they’re implemented, and how can you advocate for them, and how does a child know that they have these rights?” asked Committee on the Rights of the Child former member Brent Parfitt. “So there’s a necessity to educate young people and disseminate the Convention [on the Rights of the Child] in language that they understand.”
According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the majority of the world’s indigenous people live in poverty. In most regions, indigenous peoples continue to face powerful obstacles hindering the full enjoyment of their fundamental rights.
“The challenge is that many governments or states don’t really recognize that there are indigenous peoples in their own countries,” said UNPFII Chairperson Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.
“Even if they do recognize that, they don’t have a lot of services or budgets to address the situation,” she added. “So that’s really one of the biggest challenges that we meet.”
A stronger framework
UNICEF has been a key actor in UN processes related to indigenous issues at the global level. However, speakers at the consultation noted, there is a need to strengthen UNICEF’s understanding of indigenous and minority issues so that cultural diversity is fully integrated into its programmes.
|An Embera girl in the remote indigenous community of Playon Chico in Darién Province, Panama, on the border with Colombia.|
“It’s important that we, who advocate on behalf of children, understand the legal framework for these children’s rights and also are aware of the best practices to ensure those rights are respected by state parties,” said Mr. Parfitt.
Building upon the consultation, recommendations for concrete follow-up actions will enable UNICEF to better position itself – within the spectrum of activities undertaken by partners at all levels – on protection of indigenous and minority rights.
“For minorities, I think they want what we all want,” said Ms. McDougall. “They want the ability to be effective participants in the decisions that affect their lives. They want respect and dignity. They want education and healthcare for their children.”
Former member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child Brent Parfitt talks about the need for indigenous and minority populations to be aware of their rights, and for governments to recognize them.
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Watch a video about indigenous children’s rights, shown at the UNICEF Consultation on Indigenous Peoples’ and Minorities’ Issues.
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News note: International Day of the World’s Indigenous People
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UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
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