Global Policy Forum

HRC Establishes New Subsidiary Body

International Indian Treaty Council
January 11, 2008

On December 13th 2007, in the closing hours of its 6th session, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution to establish a new subsidiary body, the "Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples".

The UN Human Rights Council was created by the UN General Assembly in March 2006 to replace the Commission on Human Rights. Its mandate is to be "responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all", to "address situations of violations of human rights" and to "promote the effective coordination and mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system".

According to the resolution which established it, the new Expert Mechanism will "assist the Human Rights Council in the implementation of its mandate" by providing thematic expertise and making proposals to the Council pertaining to the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The new Mechanism will consist of 5 independent experts selected according to the same process established for selection of other UN experts. They will meet once a year and report directly to the Council. Participation will be open to states (countries), UN experts and agencies, Non-governmental Organizations and Indigenous Peoples' organizations, among others. The resolution "strongly recommends" that Indigenous experts be included among the members. Nominations may be submitted by Indigenous organizations as well as states.

At its first session in June 2006, the Human Rights Council adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13th, 2007. International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) Executive Director Andrea Carmen, Yaqui Nation, was present for both the adoption of the Declaration and the establishment of the new Expert Mechanism, and sees a direct link between the two. "This new Mechanism will provide us with the opportunity to propose ways for the Council, UN member states and the UN system as whole to implement the Declaration" she said.

Andrea also stated that IITC and other Indigenous organizations are looking forward to working with the new body to review recommendations from key studies carried out by the former Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which has now been replaced by this new mechanism under the restructuring of the UN Human Rights System. These include the UN Study on Treaties, the Study on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources, the Study on Indigenous Peoples' Cultural Heritage and others. "These studies include extensive input by Indigenous Peoples and make very important recommendations which have never been implemented or, in many cases, fully endorsed, by the UN and its member states. The new Mechanism has been given a mandate which clearly includes making proposals for follow-up on the unfinished work of these studies", she said.

IITC Board President Francisco Cali, Mayan Kaqchikel from Guatemala, is a member of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). He agrees that this new body can provide unprecedented opportunities for Indigenous Peoples to work with states, UN agencies and bodies to address human rights violations affecting Indigenous Peoples around the world. "This new mechanism will provide a way to coordinate efforts to defend Indigenous Peoples' rights among various UN Bodies, experts, agencies and Treaty Monitoring Bodies like the CERD. Indigenous Peoples working in the UN System are very appreciative of this historic step taken by the Human Rights Council. We look forward to seeing what it can do", he said.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights organized a Meeting, attended by states and Indigenous Peoples, to discuss proposals for this new mechanism right before the final week of the Council's 6th session. Chief Willie Littlechild, Ermineskin Cree and representative of the International Organization of Indigenous Resource Development (IOIRD) was proposed by the Indigenous Peoples' Caucus to serve as the session's Co-chair, together with the ambassador from Bolivia. This was an historic moment at the UN since both Co-chairs, the Indigenous Caucus representative Chief Littlechild and the Bolivian Ambassador, are Indigenous.

Chief Littlechild noted the unusually fast time frame in which this new body was put in place once Indigenous Peoples began to advocate for it's creation in May 2006 during the 5th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. The Indigenous Caucus proposal for the new Expert Body was submitted by IITC, IOIRD and other organizations at each session of the Human Rights Council, beginning with its first session in June 2006. Willie also noted with appreciation the wide support the final resolution received from the members states, including Canada, and emphasized that "the establishment of the new Expert Mechanism is evidence of the good faith and political will of the Human Rights Council". He added that "it was certainly an honor for me to represent the Maskwací®s Cree in introducing , through a joint statement with IITC and others, the proposal for the new body after the 5th session of the UN Permanent Forum, and then to Co-chair the very significant UN Meeting that lead to such an important Human Rights Council decision".

Bolivia took the lead to develop and present the first draft of the resolution at this Council session, working closely with the Indigenous Peoples' Caucus. The resolution was streamlined and amended in the final days of the session in negotiations between a number of states including Guatemala, Mexico, Denmark, Greece, Canada, United Kingdom, Spain and others. They worked to ensure that it could be adopted by consensus of the Council's 47 member states, a requirement for the Councils' structural or "institution building" provisions, while at the same time maintaining a broad enough mandate to ensure its effectiveness.

The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was the final piece of the Council's Institution-building package to be put in place. Its adoption was delayed until the Council's last meeting of the year, due in part to the previous reluctance expressed by some member states to support the creation of a new body focused on Indigenous Peoples' human rights. Its adoption was seen as a major step forward by many states and Indigenous Peoples, including the IITC and IOIRD, who had worked over the past two years to create this new Mechanism.

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