Director Hawaii Insititute for Human Rights
The new mechanism in the global human rights machinery focusing on indigenous rights is illuminating insight into its potential future to promote the fundamental freedoms after only its third session at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
Following in the footsteps of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UN WGIP) with over two decades of annual summer sessions, the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) held its third session from 12 – 16 July with over 500 participants consisting of indigenous peoples, states, UN specialized agencies, NGOs, National Human Rights Institutions and academic institutions.
While the first body to discuss indigenous rights created a tradition of meeting in weeks prior to the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in late July, the new EMRIP has yet to confirm a consistent pattern for the annual meeting hosting its inaugural shortened session of three days in October 2008 and the second session in mid August 2009.
The actual name indicates an evolution in the global movement for promotion of human rights of indigenous peoples. With the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, most member-states no longer resisted the term “peoples” with a “s” signifying a significant shift to include indigenous peoples in the legal terminology recognized from the United Nations Charter to the International Bill of Rights.
The members of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous consists of five dedicated individuals with decades of experiences in their indigenous communities even attending as observers many sessions of the previous UN WGIP. While the first body at the UN never had an indigenous member in over two decades, the EMRIP started its existence with nearly every seat being held by indigenous leaders. Four of the five members are indigenous with all holding extensive advocate and academic experiences focusing on the securing rights in the struggle for self-determination.
The members consists of John Henriksen, Jannie Lasimbang, Jose Carlos Morales Morales, Jose Mencio Molintas and Catherine Odimba Kombe representing the five UN regions.
The EMRIP leadership learned from the WGIP to share responsibility with a new chair being elected annually. So far, the chairmanship has rotated annually between the first three cited above with Jose Carlos Morales Morales chairing the third session.
The UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples annual meeting core is the current study on the agenda. It is the heart of the human rights work for the week. It is absolutely essential to have read and even shared the study with one’s community to participate in the meeting. While there are other agenda items, the study dominates the weekly discussion taking at least half of the scheduled meeting times to allow for thorough examination and engagement with indigenous peoples. The other significant agenda item is the realization of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is a space in the UN to review the realization of the rights enshrined in UN DRIP. The agenda item for proposals will also be significant for further standard setting.
The Progress Report on the Study on Indigenous Peoples and the Right to Participate in Decision-Making was presented by EMRIP. It is the second study after the right to education to be assigned by the UN Human Rights Council.
The purpose of the studies is for indigenous peoples and states to propose important areas to research. Then the EMRIP will host workshops and seminars that focus on sound policy and standard setting that will create a progress report that will serve as a core discussion of an annual session. Then, indigenous peoples and the experts will finalize the study to be adopted by the UN Human Rights Council then implemented into policy and practices of indigenous peoples and states to realize the rights recognized in international law.
HCHR Pillay spoke at the opening session about the next steps after the studies were adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, “I would like to encourage all stakeholders present here today to put those valuable results to active use, as you address issues related to education and indigenous peoples.
The EMRIP reports directly to the United Nations Human Rights Council providing substantive advice on human rights of indigenous peoples based on its interaction among indigenous peoples and international actors at EMRIP.
While the UN WGIP review of work at its parent body of the UN Commission on Human Rights would take nearly nine months, the EMRIP current structure allows it to meet in July and have its work reviewed at the September session. Another improvement is that all of the indigenous peoples institutions are placed on the same date this year to include greater indigenous participation in the new mechanisms.
There is closer harmony with the UN Human Rights Council and the tradition continues with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Both High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and UN Human Rights Council President Sihasak Phuangkekeow participated in the opening ceremony.
HCHR Pillay opened the third session, “In our common search for solutions, expert guidance is always crucial. The Expert Mechanism can play a key role by providing sound and constructive thematic expertise, studies and research based advice to the Human Rights Council.”
There is even closer communication and cooperation among the troika institutions of indigenous peoples – the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UN PFII), the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples (UN SR) and the EMRIP. The three institutions have become innovative in their approach to weave the mandates to enhance one another to handle all of the human rights challenges while avoiding any overt overlap.
One of the most imaginative initiatives is Special Rapporteur Jim Anaya holding individual meetings with indigenous peoples between 13 – 15 July to discuss allegations of human rights violations. Indigenous peoples request meeting prior to the session in Geneva and also submit information in advance so the meeting is not informative focusing more on how to influence states and corporations to live up to the articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international law instruments.
With such innovations, the chair at this session diligently gaveled participants that provided interventions under agenda items that fit more into the mandate of the UN SR than EMRIP.
Training and capacity building was actively pursued by the OHCHR, DoCIP, Incomiendios and indigenous peoples. Beginning with two talks during the weekend caucus meeting and continuing during daily breaks throughout the session, indigenous peoples were able to share perspectives on skills and strategies.
One glaring omission was no annual evening gathering coordinated by Kenneth Deer. While many remembered the songs shared, it was also an important institution in international diplomacy with UN member states and indigenous peoples sharing perspectives on imminent issues relating to indigenous rights.
After three sessions, the EMRIP is establishing a culture in the new UN human rights machinery. The contribution of indigenous peoples will continue to shape global affairs through EMRIP.
With new indigenous staff joining the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a new date will be picked that provides enough time after the annual Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in the Spring for a Summer meeting before the September session of the UN Human Rights Council. Once an annual pattern is established the number of indigenous peoples will definitely climb again into the thousands along as Item 5 produces proposals that improve the daily living of indigenous peoples and inspire new initiatives in the international arena.
An important improvement is that the UN Human Rights Council is working closer with indigenous peoples and the institutions created to improve the human rights situation such as the EMRIP and the Special Rapporteur. On 20 September, the UN HR Council will review the work of both institution on the same afternoon to have greater indigenous peoples participation in the process.
The most important element will be implementation of the studies by the states following UN Human Rights Council adoption. Already the study on the right to education must be seen as a guideline for governments when approaching this important issue.
This was the final session of the first EMRIP membership. The fourth session in 2011 will have new members that will build on the foundation established under the indigenous leadership. Hopefully, the rotation of chair will continue the democratic tradition.
The EMRIP was created at a December meeting during the UN Human Rights Council transition. Indigenous peoples attended from all seven indigenous regions to guarantee the new mechanism replacing UN WGIP wouldn’t retreat but continue to roll ahead. So far, EMRIP has indicated its relevance to the UN Human Rights Council and will continue to be recognized by indigenous peoples for its contribution to realizing indigenous rights.