Ever since I visited Belize in 2005, I have been wanting to work for the rights of indigenous people. While on a tour of the rainforest there, I began to speak with my tour guide, who happened to be a Maya Indian, and his story really touched me: his people used to live in the rainforest until the government kicked them out without any compensation. Granted, the government took the land for a seemingly legitimate purpose--to turn it into a nature preserve--but in the process left its people without a land, and therefore, in many ways, without a culture. After returning to Belize the next year to write my Senior Thesis in Anthropology and Political Science on the indigenous Maya's economic, social and political rights (or lack thereof), I was inspired to learn more and hopefully become an advocate for indigenous peoples.
Thus you can imagine my excitement upon finding out that the UN was hosting a specialized conference entitled the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples this past week (Third Session). The Expert Mechanism reports to the Human Rights Council, and was formed to research, discuss and report on the state of indigenous rights throughout the world. For example, they discuss the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Since I work for International Bridges to Justice, an NGO with observer status, I attended as a representative. The first day I went to a lunchtime session attended by many impressive people, including the Special Rappoteur on Indigenous Peoples. I was pleased to speak with many of them, including a lawyer who represents indigenous people in Namibia--truly inspiring. The second day I attended a lunchtime session hosted by a small Swiss NGO called the Society for Threatened Peoples about their work in the Congo. This talk was particularly interesting as it was discussing how they have used the concept of Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) to protect Congo indigenous people from being uprooted by logging companies. The plenary session was a more typical UN type of session, with many people speaking, including country representatives. Listening to some of the major countries speak, for example, Russia, the US and Australia, was interesting in another way, namely, that there was a lot of talk about how much the governments respect the indigenous people, though the grumbling in the room seemed to suggest otherwise.
I sincerely hope that I can work on some of these indigenous issues next summer and/or in the future, as it is a fascinating area that I think could really use some passionate lawyers!
Check out a short video on the Second Session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peopls that was held last year: