This week began the final portion of my Geneva experience, the Council on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Prior to attending my first council meeting, however, I met with Fr. Olivier and we debriefed my experience with the Human Rights Council.
At the conclusion of the Human Rights Council, I was definitely a little discouraged. I felt as if the council had not accomplished very much and was extremely concerned and the number of human rights violations that are taking place around the world that it seems like no one is addressing. Fr. Olivier explained to me that although it is difficult to recognize, there really is no “clean country” in the field of human rights. The issue is definitely not black and white and there are violations of human rights taking place constantly around the world. This was definitely something that was difficult for me to realize and I wondered why the nations were not doing more to stop these gross violations of rights.
However, Fr. Olivier explained to me the fact that the field of human rights is a relatively new one and that we have already been able to see a number of positive changes since the United Nations first began addressing this issue in its own specific council. The Human Rights Council may have looked weak to me, but it is just a part of the overall negotiations that relate to human rights. The council is extremely important for long-term negotiations and is addressing a number of issues on a large scale that one would not have been able to completely witness in three short weeks. The example that Fr. Olivier provided to illustrate this was the efforts that are being made to improve the Human Rights Situation in Syria. At the Human Rights Council that I witnessed, a few hours were spent discussing Syria. However, I was not able to witness the fact that a UN specialist had been sent to Syria last year as a result of the HRC meeting, that the security council in New York met on Syria and that there are also meetings simultaneously going on in Paris to discuss the Syria issue. All of these events and meetings are constantly impacting one another and I was able to see only one piece of this larger puzzle.
Additionally, he explained to me the importance of countries with different backgrounds being able to meet together and agree on certain issues. This is something that I have recognized over my time at the UN and I have been constantly impressed by the way that countries with such different fundamental values have been able to interact with one another and even agree on some topics. Fr. Olivier explained to me that agreeing on one small issue might open up the door for some countries to work together more closely in the future. One of the essential aspects of the Human Rights Council is allowing countries to recognize that they might not be as different from one another as they might think and that it is possible to cooperate with one another, especially when human rights are concerned.
After finishing up my meeting with Fr. Olivier, I left the office and went back to the United Nations for the Council on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Council is in the same room that the HRC was in so I was expecting something very similar. However, I was shocked by what a different atmosphere this council has had! I did not have to go through any security to get into the room like I did for the HRC and the room is much more empty. Additionally, the discussions feel much less formal than they did in the HRC. It definitely seems to me that the delegates are interacting with each other much more closely than they were in the HRC, when, at times, it seemed like the delegates were each speaking but not really listening to one another. I was really glad that I was given the opportunity to attend this council as well because it provided me with a comparison point and I now fully recognize how important the HRC was!
The Council on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a much weaker body and will report directly to the HRC or to the UN General Assembly. These issues used to be discussed in the HRC but there were so many concerns relating to indigenous peoples that the UN created a separate council on this topic. In this council, there are less diplomats and more junior diplomats. Fr. Olivier also explained a few of the difficulties of this council to me. One of the biggest difficulties concerning the rights of indigenous peoples is signing treaties. Since indigenous peoples are not recognized as sovereign states, there are a number of issues with recognizing or upholding treaties signed between sovereign states and indigenous groups. Another issue is the fact that many states are recognizing the rights of indigenous people but are also trying to change their way of life and integrate them into mainstream society. I have been extremely impressed by the strong desire of the indigenous people that I have seen at this council to hold on to their way of life and their determination to not allow themselves to lose their culture and traditions. This is most apparent in the various forms of traditional dress that I have seen at the council. It has been really amazing to see the different ways that each cultural group chooses to dress itself and express its heritage through clothing.
One of the most difficult situations that has arisen in this council is the fact that different groups of people define human rights differently. Since human rights are not applied the same way in every culture, the issues becomes: does one group promoting human rights have the ability to impose these rights on a group that is not promoting human rights in the same way? Who is able to determine what the “correct” human rights are? Can years of a tradition in a culture, although the custom may seem to violate human rights to outsiders, be acceptable within the context of that culture? The question of development is also extremely important. Some states believe that they are promoting human rights by developing their countries more and providing access to different resources. However, this development can disrupt the way of life of indigenous people and it sometimes done at their expense. This definitely seems to be a violation of rights. Finally, another big issue is the fact that there is no unanimity on the definition of indigenous people and what exactly would qualify a person as indigenous. As a result, discussions at the council can sometimes become confusing based on the different definitions of this idea.
Overall, I have been shocked by some of the wrongs that indigenous populations have been exposed to, either by the states they reside in or by third parties. Perhaps the best quote I heard thus far this week is “human rights cannot be aspirational.” The indigenous peoples are calling for an immediate recognition of their human rights but it seems that it is going to be a difficult process because of the great deal of ambiguity and questions surrounding this issue.
Finally, throughout this week I have also been working on the Database of Dominicans! I have finally sent out emails to all of the Dominicans that we are trying to get in contact with and now I am just waiting for all these groups to respond with their contact information. I have already heard back from a number of Dominicans who were extremely excited about this undertaking- I have such a great sense of accomplishment that I was finally able to make some progress with this project!
Tomorrow marks the final day of the Council on the Rights of Indigenous People and I leave Geneva on Saturday! I cannot believe how quickly my time here went by and I am definitely grateful that I had the opportunity to witness the Council on Indigenous Peoples so I could learn even more about how the UN functions!