Indigenous peoples are already preparing for next year's World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, with the hope that they will have a greater chance to be heard this time.
“Racism against indigenous peoples is the most overlooked racial problem of our time,” said Kenneth Deer, a Mohawk from the Canadian Kahnawake reserve near Montreal, who has been attending meetings in preparation for the August conference.
“It has become so institutionalized that people forget, or in many cases don't realize the extent of the situation,” he said.
Since colonial times, indigenous peoples have been dealing with discrimination. The next world conference is an another opportunity to improve this situation.
“One of the main objectives in this conference is to let the world know that we are one of the most discriminated against,” said Deer.
Directly descended from the pre-invasion and pre-colonial society, indigenous peoples today live in more than 70 countries, including the Aborigines in Australia, the Saamis in Northern Europe and the native Americans in North America. It is estimated there are more than 300 million indigenous peoples worldwide, representing more than 5,000 languages and cultures.
Since indigenous peoples were first allowed to enter the United Nations building in Geneva in 1977 and focus attention on the discrimination they were suffering, they have demanded the right to self determination, to be respected in their individuality and as tribes.
Some progress has been made to include indigenous issues in the UN agenda. But at the beginning of the 21th century governments and international organizations are still failing to recognize their rights to live according to their own cultural, spiritual and traditional values according to indigenous groups.
Earlier this month, the Indigenous Initiative for the Peace, a group of indigenous experts from North, Central and South America, met in Mexico to discuss what they believe should be on the conference's agenda.
In a statement they delivered to UN authorities to be taken under consideration Indigenous peoples emphasize that in many regions they are being ignored by the government and are not considered in developing policy making. Expropriation, confiscation and domination of indigenous land, territories and resources are some of the realities the indigenous peoples are expected to share in this upcoming conference.
In the past, conferences to combat racism held in 1978 and in 1983 included little participation from indigenous peoples. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, director of the Indigenous World Association based in San Francisco, participated in the 1978 conference and recalled that only two other indigenous representatives attended.
“We didn't have enough input,” said Nilo Cayuqueo form the Mapuche tribe of Argentina. “We were not invited on time and in some cases were not notified at all (about conferences). They ignored us basically.”
While Deer says that indigenous representatives were not present in previous human rights conferences because of lack of information, he admits that today indigenous people are more aware and involved in the fight.
“There is more communication among us, so even if we are not informed properly we are aware of what is happening,” said Cayuqueo. “Many from the new generations are also getting involved.”
Their demands included more political inclusion, anti-discrimination laws and separate education systems.
Topics from the two previous conferences included major discussion on apartheid and Zionism, overshadowing the debate on indigenous rights and discrimination.
“Their was not a lot to do for indigenous peoples because there was very little political space to bring it out,” said Ortiz.
Next year, the conference's agenda will be more broad, leaving more opportunities for the indigenous sector.
“The role of the indigenous peoples for next year is to put their issues at the top of the agenda,” said Ortiz.
Indigenous peoples from the Americas will participate in the regional preparatory meeting racism to be held in Santiago, Chile, Dec. 4-7.
According to the UN website on the conference, the preparatory process is to raise awareness of racism and racial discrimination globally and to focus on the action needed to fight it.
The next World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance's is to be held from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7, 2001in Durban, South Africa.
Since indigenous first entered the United Nations in 1977 progress as been made within the UN to protect their rights, here is a sample of the most important achievements. It is estimated that there is over 300 million indigenous peoples worldwide spread in more than 70 countries.
In 1982: the United Nation established a working group on indigenous population that meet every year.
In 1989: the first conference on effects of racism and racial discrimination on social and economic relations between indigenous peoples and status took place.
· the draft United Nations declaration on the right of the indigenous peoples was completed after 10 years.
· the international Year of the World’s Indigenous People proclaimed.
1995-2004: International Decade of the World's Indigenous People