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8th Session of the EMRIP: Joint statement on indigenous rights and World Heritage

July 22 2015

Lola Garcia-Alix (IWGIA) & Anne Nuorgam (Sámi Council)

Joint statement on the continued lack of protection of the rights of indigenous peoples with respect to their cultural heritage in the context of UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention

Joint statement of: Endorois Welfare Council, Saami Council & International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA)

Thank you Mr. Chair.

This is a joint statement of the Endorois Welfare Council, the Saami Council and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs on the continued lack of protection of the rights of indigenous peoples in the context of UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention.

We would like to begin by expressing our appreciation for the new EMRIP Study on cultural heritage and the important recommendations contained in Advice No. 8, and in particular those related to UNESCO and the World Heritage Convention.

We want to use this opportunity to inform the Expert Mechanism about some of the developments that occurred at the 39th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn earlier this month. Among the issues under discussion at that session was a proposal to include a provision on the participation of indigenous peoples in the nomination of World Heritage sites into the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. A representative of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Oliver Loode, attended the session to participate in that discussion and we want to commend him for his engagement, which was very important.

Following the discussion, the World Heritage Committee decided to include, for the very first time, language related to indigenous peoples into the Operational Guidelines. The Guidelines now recognize that indigenous peoples can be “partners in the protection and conservation of World Heritage”, and encourage States “to demonstrate, as appropriate, that the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples has been obtained” when they nominate sites for World Heritage listing. We consider that this is a positive first step in the process towards making the implementation of the World Heritage Convention consistent with international human rights law relating to indigenous peoples.

However, it is also clear that the adopted provisions are highly inadequate, as they leave obtaining indigenous peoples’ free, prior and informed consent at the discretion of the nominating States. It is not a mandatory requirement and procedural obligation, as it should be, but just something that States are encouraged to do. It is clearly not something that the World Heritage Committee will insist on. For instance, in the case of the nomination of Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex in Thailand, which was discussed at the recent session in Bonn, the Committee voted against adopting a provision that would have required Thailand to ensure the free, prior and informed consent of the affected Karen communities. The Committee member who proposed the deletion of this provision stated that [Quote] “we are here at a prestigious committee of culture and heritage, we are not in Geneva on the Human Rights Council”! Only one member of the World Heritage Committee spoke up against this notion, and the provision was deleted from the decision.

The World Heritage Committee also explicitly rejected a proposal to “make all complete nominations publically accessible” once they are received by UNESCO. Unless a given State publishes the nomination documents voluntarily, they are only accessible to the Members of the World Heritage Committee, not to affected indigenous peoples or the public at large. We believe that this is highly incompatible with indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent as well as States’ commitments and obligations to ensure public participation and access to information in the context of environmental decision-making.

Mr. Chair, the given examples clearly demonstrate the World Heritage Committee’s continued lack of respect for human rights standards related to indigenous peoples. Moreover, the discussions at the recent session in Bonn revealed strong resistance by many States Parties against adopting safeguards for the rights of indigenous peoples in the context of the World Heritage Convention. Several States even contested the very concept of “indigenous peoples”, including some States that have endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, such as France or Senegal.

A main reason for this lack of consistency and coherence appears to be a significant lack of awareness and understanding of indigenous peoples’ issues among the representatives of States at the World Heritage Committee, as well as other UNESCO meetings. We believe that this lack of understanding of indigenous peoples’ issues in the realm of UNESCO is a matter that requires targeted action by the UN mechanisms concerned with indigenous issues. It should also be addressed through the system-wide action plan to be developed by the UN Secretary-General.

Mr. Chair, as EMRIP is aware, UNESCO is currently in the process of developing a UNESCO Policy on Indigenous Peoples – we are looking forward to hearing about the progress of this Policy at the UNESCO side event this afternoon. The World Heritage Committee has made the adoption of this Policy a prerequisite for further discussions by the Committee on whether changes to its Operational Guidelines are needed to address indigenous peoples’ concerns. We therefore very much welcome the recommendation in Expert Mechanism Advice No. 8 that “UNESCO should strengthen its efforts to finalize its Policy on Indigenous Peoples, in cooperation with indigenous peoples and the three United Nations mechanisms with specific mandates regarding the rights of indigenous peoples”.

In closing, we would like to encourage the Expert Mechanism to cooperate with the Permanent Forum and the Special Rapporteur in order to strengthen their engagement with UNESCO, and also with States’ representatives at UNESCO, with a view to enhancing awareness of indigenous peoples’ rights and helping to ensure that the UNESCO Policy on Indigenous Peoples is in line with the UNDRIP. In order to achieve this, we strongly recommend that EMRIP, the Permanent Forum and the Special Rapporteur play an active role in the 39th session of UNESCO’s General Conference in November this year.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.