On behalf of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) I welcome the opportunity to address the Commission on this historic occasion. In June 1993, I was asked by the indigenous peoples of North America to speak on their behalf to the plenary session of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. On that day almost seven years ago I joined Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum in calling for the creation of a permanent forum for indigenous peoples at the United Nations.
We thought it most appropriate that the International Decade of the World?s Indigenous Peoples should have as a concrete accomplishment the creation of a permanent body in the United Nations that could knowledgeably address the issues of indigenous peoples, and thus to begin to address issues that have never been properly addressed by the world community.
I am pleased to see that this Commission is now about to recommend to the Economic and Social Council a resolution which begins with the encouraging words:
"Decides to establish a Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples?"
I know that this proposal is well supported by the great majority of the member States represented in this Commission, and we welcome that support. Yet I know that there are still some States with misgivings and doubts. It is to the representatives of those States that I want to address these few comments.
About fifteen years ago I attended the UN mission in New York of a large Western country to meet its ambassador. The Grand Council of the Crees was seeking consultative status, and we wanted to explain who we are. You can not imagine the ambassador?s surprise when I told to him that the Crees are a North American aboriginal people. He said, "I thought you had all been exterminated 100 years ago. I am amazed and delighted that your people still exist".
Yes, we continue to exist. However, up until the time of the tabling of the Martinez-Cobo report almost twenty year ago, we were virtually non-existent to the international community. True, the ILO approved Convention 107 giving us belated and misapprehended recognition, but it was only with the establishment of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations that our life began at the United Nations, and then only as poorly understood so-called "populations" and "minorities". It took twenty more years of work and education for us to arrive where we are today.
Certain States are sure to raise the issue of cost, and the dictum that no new UN entities should be established. In response, I must point out that the Secretary General of the United Nations was asked after the Copenhagen seminar in 1995 to prepare a report on the status of UN services to indigenous peoples. That report made it clear that indigenous peoples were essentially excluded from most of the programmes of the UN.
In the meanwhile what has the indigenous community given to the world? All of the States of the Western Hemisphere are situated on indigenous lands. The great food staples?corn and potatoes?were hybridized by indigenous peoples. Our traditional knowledge?almost never acknowledged?forms the basis of a large part of the pharmaceutical industry today. How can we invoke the cost of a small new UN body to justify the continued exclusion of indigenous issues from the scope of work of the United Nations?
The Permanent Forum as proposed is an advisory body, as indeed are most of the UN entities, this Commission included. The Permanent Forum will address indigenous issues within the entire scope of the Economic and Social Council, including human rights. It will, however, considerably broaden the UN?s appreciation of indigenous issues to include inter alia, economic development, environment, education, traditional knowledge, and other matters. The Secretary General?s report noted that these issues are not being appropriately addressed within the UN System at this time.
We have often been asked: What will become of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations? The answer is this. The WGIP is doing important work. Its members, and particularly its Chairman/Rapporteur Dr. Erica-Irene Daes must be given recognition for the very fact that we have reached the occasion of this historic resolution. The work being done by the WGIP needs to continue. Standard-setting has not been completed by any means, and the review of current developments of indigenous peoples must be on going.
However, before we consider the future of the WGIP, we need to have the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples up and running. Perhaps one of its first orders of business will be to make recommendations on the means to continue the mandates which have been given to the WGIP. Certainly, those mandates could conceivably come within the work of the Permanent Forum. Most important, however, is that these important mandates do not lapse; this crucial work must continue uninterrupted.
Finally, there continue to be some voices advising delay, citing the need for more information and detail on the Permanent Forum. This objection is no longer valid. Considerable work has been done. We now have consensus on all of the essential elements. The Commission is now in an excellent position to move from consideration of the creation of the Permanent Forum to the operationalization of the proposal to create the Forum. The resolution that is before this Commission will be the first firm step in that direction.
In closing I want to thank all of the States that have supported and encouraged the creation of the Permanent Forum. We very much appreciate the support of Canada, which although somewhat hesitant at first, is now firmly committed and has encouraged other States to take similar positions. In particular, we want to thank the Danish government for taking the lead, and the Greenland Home Rule Government for its contribution to the Danish effort. We want to thank Holland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland for their dedication to this project.
Dr. Ted Moses, Grand Chief
Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee)