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Searching for a Representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Posted on: Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Keywords: Latin America & Caribbean, Human Rights Advocacy, UN, Indigenous Rights

An interview and LETTER OF SUPPORT for the candidacy of Mirna Cunningham of MADRE's sister organization CADPI.

By Tarcila Rivera Zea.

The Central American Indigenous Council (CICA) and the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of South America have nominated Dr. Mirna Cuninngham Kain, of the Miskito Peoples from the Autonomous Region of the North Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, as a representative for Latin America and the Caribbean in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues for the period 2011 to 2013. This was a joint decision made with other Indigenous regional and subregional networks.

The leaders who participated in the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum strongly believe that spaces for Indigenous representation must be occupied by Indigenous persons who have broad support from organizations, nations, training and education centers; namely partners in the efforts to achieve respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples.  That is to say, we must support candidates who, after having fulfilled their responsibilities, can account for their achievements.

Mirna Cunningham is a Doctor, as well as a Miskito politician with legislative and executive experience in Nicaragua. She was Minister of Health, and created URACCAN University – University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast. Furthermore, she is an active member in the Indigenous Intercultural University and Chair of Indigenous Studies.

She has been recognized by international organizations such as PAHO, UNIFEM, UNFPA, UNICEF and others. Mirna has always played an important role in creating greater opportunities for women and Indigenous Peoples everywhere.  She fully comprehends the UN system and has a perfect command of the English language.

Most importantly, she is committed to Indigenous Peoples from a democratic and universal perspective. For all these reasons, we believe that she should be, by consensus, the Indigenous representative from Latin America within the Permanent Forum.

Sister Mirna, we are entering the ninth year of the UN Permanent Forum, and regional organizations across Latin America are already preparing to submit applications. What does the Permanent Forum mean to you?

The Permanent Forum is an advisory body to ECOSOC with a mandate to discuss Indigenous issues relating to economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights. It is a mechanism we have achieved after years of struggle in the UN system. It is a tripartite mechanism that allows for dialogue between Indigenous Peoples, UN system agencies and governments on the specific rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly those contained in the UN declaration.

After having given so many recommendations in various domains and aspects concerning indigenous peoples’ lives, what role should members of the Permanent Forum play in order for us  to feel really recognized and to be certain that its creation was the right thing to do?

The role that best suits the Permanent Forum members is, first, to mobilize the Indigenous rights activists in each region of the world in order to learn the point of view of Indigenous Peoples with regard to specific demands and the critical issues that need to be discussed within the Permanent Forum. Once those issues have been defined, we must ensure that Forum members reach countries and communities, listen to people and can, on that basis, articulate proposals and recommendations to take to the Permanent Forum. This would streamline and strengthen recommendations.

However, one of the Permanent Forum’s limitations has been the fact that its members do not have enough time to talk with people, and when people do try to talk, the mechanism for dialogue is not clear. One function of members must be to educate and train indigenous organizations on exactly how the Forum functions. Through dialogue mechanisms such as consultations, the members should make recommendations even before the session starts. Also, members must ensure that the Forum is maintained without losing legitimacy with governments and agencies, that it functions as a genuine tripartite dialogue mechanism, that it monitors recommendations and that those recommendations be tailored to what people want.

In order for a member of the Forum to play a catalytic role and at the same time articulate demands and recommendations, more than simple participation in the sessions is required. The member must have a sustained role of rapprochement with organizations in each country. Should we consider a representative who dedicates his/her time completely to the Forum?

Permanent Forum members have to dedicate more time. The Forum can not be a UN body that works two weeks a year. It is a process that starts just as one session ends and concludes when the following session begins. It is almost a full time job because, in order to facilitate compliance with recommendations, communities, organizations, Indigenous women, men and young people, governments and other UN bodies need to see that their work is articulated in the Forum.

I think it's a mistake to believe that the Permanent Forum's existence is limited only to those two weeks when people are in New York. Those days are for formulating proposals initiated at the community and country levels, and for further articulating them, little by little, until they are transformed into concrete recommendations. This is the only method to guarantee a margin of legitimacy for this agency; otherwise, we run the risk that the Permanent Forum will turn into a beaurocratic organ of the UN system, where people arrive once a year without sufficient preparation or purpose - which would be a tragedy for Indigenous Peoples, who would be losing the very political body we worked so hard to create.

After these eight years, the Permanent Forum has sought to position itself in the UN system and is considered by UN agencies as the organ responsible for collecting Indigenous Peoples’ demands. The challenge now is to gain a proper position before organizations and Indigenous communities, so that the legitimacy that is has gained in the international arena would have the support of the peoples. What do you believe the members of the Permanent Forum can contribute in this sense?

In the first eight years, the Forum has sought to position itself in the UN system and to gain recognition from other agencies as the body that collects the demands and proposals of Indigenous Peoples. However, the need to collaborate with organizations and communities remains a constant. This has led many leaders to feel that their struggle is disjointed, because we are living through difficult times when there is strong pressure from within countries: impunity has grown and there is much skepticism about the concept of human rights. The Permanent Forum is facing great challenges as it needs to maintain its profile within the UN system and, in addition to that, should not lose its standing with governments and Indigenous organizations.

This means that the role of tripartite articulation can not be played only at the international level, it needs to be closer to the reality of each country. The members of the Forum need to assume greater leadership as guarantors in the defense of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and this will require not only institutional support of the UN system but also support primarily from Indigenous organizations.

What are the minimum conditions our representative should meet? We are entering a very competitive campaign to ensure we select a representative who has broad support across Latin America, with the conviction that the person is being chosen because of his/her abilities and contributions, and not just because the person is Indigenous.  

The candidate should have moral authority in the eyes of international agencies of the UN, governments and Indigenous organizations. The candidate should be someone who has been able to build consensus for a more collective leadership in the Forum, whose strength lies in the shared tripartite leadership. Without that, the candidate loses legitimacy. The candidate needs to be able to achieve a collective leadership, to unify Asia, Africa, the US and the Americas, to consider them as eight subregions that participate at the Forum.

The world's global crisis directly affects Indigenous Peoples and it won't be resolved by just one region or another; it must be faced collaboratively. And Latin America needs to be guaranteed participation with the Forum as one unified body, not divided into Central and South America.

The candidate should be someone who knows the regional reality and has experience with the region, more so in times when the UN is assessing issues relating to women, such as sexual and reproductive health among others, after meetings like Cairo +15, where we have seen the leadership of Indigenous women grow over the last fifteen years.

Maybe I am asking a great deal, but I believe that the Forum needs to reestablish this sense of collective direction. UN agencies sometimes place challenges such as these before the Indigenous leadership, because they want to have just one or two people representing entire collegiate bodies.

The Forum is a collegiate body, and it could only be enhanced by having sixteen members who are each given very specific responsibilities. Otherwise, certain regions are positioned above others.

We could say that a representative that has no legitimacy, nor knows the international system and additionally has language limitations when trying to communicate with others because they generally are anglophones, would have great difficulties in fulfilling the roles assigned to the Permanent Forum members. What do you think?

If it is someone who has had only local or very little national experience, if it is a person who does not speak English or know the UN system nor the processes that have been in existence for the past 30 or 40 years in connection with Indigenous Peoples, then the person would arrive very ill-prepared for their role. They could be very prominent members, but it is not possible to abruptly begin treating local experience as global experience. One of the mistakes of the Forum is to believe that experts can  come from one region to talk only for their region; the experts should come from the regions, but once they become experts of the Forum, they must become global experts, not just experts in their region. People who work best within the UN system are the people who know how it works, who speak not only of one region, but can speak on all topics from a global point of view. That is a lesson that we can learn from those who have had a prominent role within the Forum in these last nine years.

In the region, we would like both in CICA and in the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the South American Region, to achieve candidates by consensus for Latin America, since past experience has shown that it is very frustrating when Indigenous organizations do not feel represented by Indigenous members in the Forum, and that it would lead to a legitimization of the Permanent Forum as an institution. Should you be the representative of consensus, what would you do in the Permanent Forum?

First, I would work to maintain a serious, systematic and consistent coordination with Indigenous organizations so that they are made aware of how to use the mechanism of the Forum. The second function would be to transform the key issues facing Indigenous rights in the region into a global agenda: issues such as mining, concessions and social conflicts which will not be resolved only by addressing them within one region; it is important that they be brought into a space where global public policies can be implemented.

The other change would be to transform the Forum's collegiate body into something more accessible for Indigenous Peoples who represent legitimate organizations. It is important to take advantage of the experience of not just the Forum's 16 members, but also that of hundreds of Indigenous sisters and brothers in the world when discussing various topics, to make use of them in the Forum depending on the needs of the people.

The I would strengthen the visibility of Indigenous women's issues, but not just in respect to problems, but also in respect to the potential of women, and I would be interested in strengthening the connection between the Forum's work and that of other bodies, such as the Indigenous Parliament of America and the Indigenous people employed in leadership positions in government, from municipal to provincial councils, in order to generate fruitful dialogue and enhance the successes we have had as Indigenous Peoples on the continent.

Does the Forum respond to the political expectations of Indigenous Peoples? Recently, there has been talk of multilateral pressures and issues being discussed have been stuck or do not go as one would hope.

To the extent that they have further democratized the themes of the Forum and that recommendations are coming more from regional organizations to become converted into documents of the Forum, there is less possibility for other sectors to get a hand in the recommendations. The democracy of all apparatuses is what ensures that we work openly. That the recommendations will not change within the group of 16 and that this group has the opportunity to talk with everyone and take things in a transparent manner before transforming them into recommendations, is the only option in order to avoid being influenced by multilateral players or whomever.

Indigenous Peoples' issues are very complex and the only option available to a mechanism like the Forum is to remain open. Moreover, Indigenous Peoples have to understand that this is only one mechanism and that within the UN system, there are many other mechanisms that should also be used to complement the work of the Forum. It would only improve the performance of the Forum if it were consistent with the Human Rights Council, the Legal and Social Commission for Women and all other mechanisms. The problems of Indigenous Peoples are not going to be solved with just one instrument, we have to work jointly with all of them.

ACT NOW. Express support for Mirna Cunningham on her nomination as representative for Latin America and the Caribbean in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Send this LETTER OF SUPPORT for her candidacy to  




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