Breaking the Ice for Indigenous Voices on the World Stage

World Policy Blog posted an article titled, “Breaking the Ice for Indigenous Voices on the World Stage.” The article reads in part as follows;

“‘Inuit with our fellow Indigenous Peoples are not stakeholders. We are the main players’. This is how J. Okalik Eegeesiak, current chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, ended her February 2016 speech titled ‘An Inuit Vision of the Arctic in 2045‘ in front of the Wilton Park international forum in London. Unfortunately, her description of indigenous peoples’ roles is not reflected in state policies anywhere in the world. Today, indigenous representatives continue to struggle to make their voices heard in a system that favors state-centric forms of governance and Westphalian concepts of nationhood and sovereignty. The creation of the Arctic Council, however, may have broken the ice for indigenous groups by promoting a higher level of participation in both regional and international institutions.

The Arctic Model

The Arctic Council, established in September 1996, is unique as an intergovernmental body in that it provides Permanent Participant status to indigenous peoples’ organizations. Permanent Participants have full consultation rights in connection with the Arctic Council’s negotiations and decisions. Although indigenous organizations are not allowed to vote, they participate in the same manner as Arctic Council member states in most other respects and can present proposals for cooperative activities directly to state representatives.

The document that paved the way for the creation of the Arctic Council was the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, adopted in June 1991. The drafting of the AEPS was the first time indigenous peoples in the region participated in the preparatory process of an international declaration. Although the Arctic Council is an informal organization—not an official international organization like the United Nations, recognized under international law—it is still an example of effective communication with indigenous groups on issues that directly impact their communities and livelihoods.

Progress at the U.N. General Assembly

Back in 2005, Arctic scholars Timo Koivurova and Leena Heinämäki wrote a paper advocating for the Arctic Council model to be applied in other regions. They were skeptical, however, as to whether this model could ever be used at the highest level of international decision-making. In reference to institutions like the United Nations, they stated, “it is always possible that indigenous peoples will be able to participate with a status other than that of NGO, but in the current international law-making process, this is very unlikely.” Just over a decade after Koivurova and Heinämäki offered a fairly skeptical view on indigenous participation at the international level, the U.N. began consultations on this very topic.

Over the past year, the U.N. General Assembly has hosted consultations to create a new status for ‘indigenous representative institutions’. Although the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous peoples are entitled to participate in all decisions affecting them, they are currently not allowed to actively participate or even attend certain U.N. meetings where their interests are at stake. For example, indigenous governing institutions cannot so much as observe sessions of the Human Rights Council or Third Committee of the General Assembly without a special invitation, even though these bodies adopt annual resolutions on the rights of indigenous peoples.”

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