Protecting the Lives of Indigenous People is Still a Challenge: 10 Years After the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

By Angela Martinez and Luminita Cuna
As 2017 marks the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the 16th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) focused on the achievements and challenges of implementing the Declaration. Although UNDRIP has been integrated at regional, national and international levels, the UNPFII and the Expert Group Meeting on the implementation of UNDRIP in January 2017 showed that there are still many gaps that need to be addressed.
Violence Against Indigenous Peoples is Rampant
The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, noted in January this year that there are still “very serious retreats in how rights are implemented”. She has witnessed herself many instances where lands from Indigenous Peoples have been grabbed by the private sector and extractive industries. One critical situation still unravelling is the stigmatization, persecution and criminalization of Indigenous Peoples and their protests. She pointed out that in the 2015 Global Witness report, On Dangerous Ground, that out of the 185 killings related to land and environmental defense, 40% of the victims were Indigenous Peoples. According to the 2016 Frontline Defenders, Annual Report of Human Rights Defenders at Risk, 281 rights defenders were murdered in 25 countries, 49% of these defenders were struggling to defend land, indigenous and environmental rights.
Photo:Luminita Cuna

Photo:Luminita Cuna

During the Permanent Forum dialogue on human rights defenders, the voices of Indigenous Peoples from Kenya, Russia, Ecuador, to Mexico, USA and Bangladesh resounded loud and clear. The Indigenous leaders were reading, as fast as they could, trying to highlight in their three minutes the situation on the killings, persecution, harassment, arbitrary detentions, death-threats and defamation campaigns against Indigenous communities in their countries. As soon as their time ended and the microphone was off, the urgent voices of Indigenous Peoples continued to resonate in the room in an attempt to be heard and dispute the official reports being presented by their governmental representatives. Most importantly, all the indigenous voices were one in urging effective actions among the UN mechanisms to guarantee the realization of the Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination and pursuit of justice for their brothers and sisters. Their solidarity was evident each time each leader denounced with determination, sorrow and outrage the impunity in which corporations and states act against the legitimate and peaceful defense of Indigenous rights.
“Because we are organizing to protect our land and rivers and saying no to the entering of the Chinese oil company in our territory, they want to kill me. They want to scare me with their threats to put me in jail. Just two weeks ago they brutally killed my sister-in law and seven children in different communities” (Amazonian Indigenous woman leader)
States Have Not Showed Political Will to Implement the Declaration
While recognizing important advances, forum participants voiced their concerns about the lack of implementation of the Declaration in many countries and stressed the need for concrete action at the national and local levels. At the human rights plenary session, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples underlined the lack of understanding of the Declaration by the states and the different interpretations of its mandates, which have prevented states from translating the Declaration into concrete actions. She also condemned the criminalization and harassment of Indigenous activists, organizations and movements that are still happening in many countries to such a point that they spend more time in courts defending themselves than strengthening their movements.
Unheard Solutions, Unanswered Questions: Battling Inadequate Funding
Many questions were floated at the Forum, but very few had clear and conclusive answers: how could the mandates of UN rapporteurs translate into effective implementation on the ground? Why is there a lack of follow up after UN rapporteurs send their visit report and recommendation to the states? Is there an intersectional approach to protect human rights defenders? One message was clear: the UN mechanisms have not been effective in holding states and corporations accountable.  Some Indigenous people urged the elaboration of an international legal binding instrument on transnational corporations (TNCs), which would contribute to ending the impunity of TNCs for human rights violations, and to ensuring access to justice for Indigenous people affected by their activities. Unfortunately, 10 years after UNDRIP’s adoption there are still not enough funds to organize and ensure enough participation of Indigenous representatives to the forum. This year, it was hard for the Secretariat of the UNPFII to get enough financial resources for its organization, and apart from that, the number of staff who usually coordinates the forum was cut in half.
“The recognized rights into the UNDRIP are not reflected into the current budgets to promote the rights of indigenous people” (Alvaro Pop, FILAC)
To date, Indigenous Peoples receive less than three percent of total giving from US foundations. Certainly, there is a need for greater amounts of foundation support, but another equally important issue is to analyse the kind of grant-making practices that prevail to support Indigenous peoples’ agendas. At the 10 years’ mark when we celebrate the Declaration, a lot of the practices of international cooperation still reflect power relations fostering unequal partnerships. The philosophy of reciprocity of Indigenous peoples should permeate our views and the approach we take related to Indigenous peoples, their contribution to international processes and international human rights mechanisms to protect their territory and natural resources. This is needed now more than ever to combat the ever growing threats of climate change. Our relationship with Indigenous peoples should not be a financial transaction: this is what Indigenous peoples have taught us: the international cooperation and Indigenous people need to become equal partners.
Acting Together
Looking inside our own community, a community of donors who accompany the agendas of indigenous people, we must ask ourselves, what have we done after 10 years to honour the principles of the UNDRIP in our practices? And in this current situation of persecution and threats against Indigenous people, have we increased our support or built more effective grant-making practices to directly support Indigenous people at risk and better support the implementation of UNDRIP?
We cannot wait 10 years more to ensure the protection of the lives of Indigenous Peoples. As a part of the global donor community, we should recognize that funds are needed to prevent and decrease the violence Indigenous people are experiencing. We have to act before another leader is detained unjustly, beaten, tortured or killed. Solidarity grants should be given well-before violence happens and Indigenous People should be supported in implementing collective security and protection protocols.
With admiration for the Indigenous People of Standing Rock, the movie “Awake” was featured during the Permanent Forum. At the end of film a powerful question invited us to take action:  Will you wake up and dream with us? Will you join us to act together and protect the lives of indigenous people?

About the authors: 
Angela Martinez is an IFIP board member and an independent consultant, who has been working with Indigenous People for over 25 years.  
Luminita Cuna has been an IFIP consultant since 2013. She has been working with indigenous communities since 2006.