On September 22-23, the United Nations hosted the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WIPC). The two-day high-level plenary meeting gathered over a thousand Indigenous and non-Indigenous delegates from Indigenous communities, organizations and member states to discuss the rights of Indigenous peoples.
“Together, let us recognize and celebrate the valuable and distinctive identities of Indigenous peoples around the world,” implored UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he opened the conference.
Flanked by General Assembly President Sam Kutesa and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Ki-moon reminded the delegates that their discussions and conclusions would reverberate across the international community with concrete effects in the lives of Indigenous people.
Discussion focused on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the General Assembly in 2007. The culmination of the conference was summarized in the Outcome Document, a statement formed by consensus across the two-day discussions.
Alberto Saldamando, a Mexican activist for Indigenous rights said he was inspired by the water ceremony at the Hudson River conducted by First Nations women who walked around the Great Lakes. “Experiences like that really energize you,” he said.
On the Outcome Document of the Conference, Saldamando was satisfied but not enthusiastic. “It’s good because it doesn’t do any harm.” His lukewarm praise is due to the fact that, while it is “comprehensive and good as a checklist,” the document is merely voluntary and unenforceable upon member states and corporations. He did, however, celebrate the inclusion of the importance of the necessity of “free, prior and informed consent” in protecting Indigenous land rights.
Mohawk and Algonquin Grand Chief Guillaume Carle concurred with Saldamando’s reservations, deploring that a lack of implementation and sanctions makes it toothless. He was also fiercely critical of Canada being the only member state not to adhere to the document, a refusal which resulted in a rare footnote recording the Harper government’s opposition. “How does Canada not respect such a big democracy as the UN?” Carle wondered.
Colombian researcher Valentina Pellegrino brought her experience working with the Indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. Though excited to meet and share with others working for Indigenous rights, she was concerned that it is not a critical space but rather “a lot of nice talk.”
The Equator Prize, a biennial honour that recognizes 25 Indigenous communities for local sustainable development solutions, was awarded September 22. Guests at the sold-out ceremony included former US Vice President Al Gore, who reminded the audience that Indigenous peoples are the ones hardest hit by climate change. Occurring on the night before the UN Climate Summit, the Equator Prize Award ceremony was also a rallying cry in a week that saw a frenzy of activity around climate change.
In anticipation of the Climate Summit, on September 21, the People’s Climate March was organized to rally concerned citizens, adding to a busy week of activity in New York. The diverse mobilization involved Indigenous peoples, frontline communities, environmentalists, students, scientists, families, the elderly, unions, anti-capitalists, community groups, vegans and faith groups.
Estimates of the numbers attending the march are between 310,000 and 400,000, marking it as the biggest climate march in history.
The following day, September 22, witnessed a non-violent “Flood Wall Street” action that saw thousands of activists disrupting the financial district. Invoking the November 2012 flooding of New York City during Hurricane Sandy, it was a reminder of the stakes that face both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.