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In Lead Up to International Decade, Speakers Call for Greater Efforts to Protect Indigenous Languages, as Permanent Forum Continues Session

Speakers in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today called for greater efforts to protect and revitalize native languages, as they explored actions to be taken during the International Decade of Indigenous Languages starting from 2022.

“The Sami languages are all threatened languages, with varying numbers of speakers, varying official status, institutional and legislative support,” said Aili Keskitalo, President of the Sami Parliament of Norway, who also sits on the United Nations Global Task Force for the Decade.

Speaking on behalf of the Sami and the Inuit, the two indigenous peoples of the Arctic region, she said that the borders of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Federation cross their homeland and language communities, with all the practical challenges that entails.

The International Year for Indigenous Languages in 2019 helped boost their plans for establishing a joint cross-border language institution, Sámi giellagáldu, but this effort is waiting for financial support of all the States, she said.

“The Sami peoples needs span from support to revitalization efforts in areas where the language is almost extinct because of harsh assimilation policies, to provision of public services in our languages in our majority Sami communities,” she said.

The declaration of the International Decade might be the biggest result of the International Year, she said, urging the Permanent Forum to examine the report of an external group on the evaluation of the International Year published last week.

The first, and probably most important recommendation from the evaluation, is to ensure the meaningful participation of indigenous peoples in the structure and implementation of the Decade, she stressed.

Xing Qu, Deputy Director‑General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and acting Assistant Director‑General for Communication and Information, said that, while the International Year helped raise awareness on the importance of indigenous languages for sustainable development, peacebuilding and reconciliation, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing inequalities and risks having a negative impact on the world’s linguistic diversity.

“Protecting indigenous languages is all the more crucial, as they are associated with unique knowledge, heritage and practices, often considered as key resources for addressing environmental, socioeconomic and other challenges of our times,” he said, expressing UNESCO’s full commitment to promoting linguistic diversity and multilingualism, both online and offline, and to developing the capacities of stakeholders to protect and promote the world’s languages.

As the lead agency for the International Decade, UNESCO has established the Global Task Force comprising representatives of Governments, indigenous peoples’ organizations and the United Nations.  The agency will also lead the preparation of the Global Action Plan of the International Decade.  In addition, UNESCO is organizing regional consultations for the preparation of the Global Action Plan.

In parallel, UNESCO is conducting a feasibility study for the establishment of a multi-donor financial mechanism for the International Decade, with a view to facilitating the accommodation of requests to support indigenous peoples-led initiatives, and to creating new incentives for investment in the area of indigenous languages.  Finally, he said, a multilingual website for the International Decade is currently being developed and will be launched later in 2021.

In the ensuing dialogue, moderated by Forum member Sven-Erik Soosaar (Estonia), representatives of indigenous organizations made several recommendations such as ensuring mechanisms, including allocation of adequate resources for the successful implementation of the International Decade, the full participation of indigenous peoples in preparing and implementing the period, as well as adoption of laws that recognize traditional knowledge, systems and practices of indigenous peoples, including their languages.

The speaker for the Tebtebba Foundation stressed that a language lost can mean wider repercussions, such as the loss of wisdom in managing biodiversity and ecosystems and the loss of relations between human and nature, urging States to effectively recognize indigenous peoples and their rights to lands, territories and resources and initiate measures to protect, promote and revive native indigenous languages, including the documentation of native languages and orthographies and developing curriculum based on the children’s mother tongue.  Government representatives also highlighted their measures to protect indigenous languages.

The speaker for the World Congress of Amazigh People said States need to stop seeing indigenous languages as competing with dominant languages, or as divisive or threatening to the “national unity” of States.  It is important to remember that indigenous languages are first and foremost a right of indigenous peoples and secondly an additional wealth and asset.  In this regard, he urged States to change the way they view and treat indigenous languages and the peoples to which they belong.  The United Nations has a key role in leading States to see indigenous peoples as partners and brothers in humanity, not as adversaries or enemies.

The speaker for the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program noted an alarming increase in the extinction and disappearance of the indigenous community’s language.  The Ogiek community has been struggling to protect its unique language, identity and way of life.  Since the colonial period, the community has been subjected to several evictions notwithstanding the settlement of other communities in their ancestral land leading to language loss through assimilation, intermarriages and migration from rural to urban areas, urging the Government of Kenya to hasten the implementation of the Ogiek African Court ruling in favour of restoring Ogiek land tenure rights.

The representative of Norway, speaking on behalf of the Nordic countries, said that the International Decade can be used to encourage a long-lasting commitment to save and strengthen indigenous peoples’ languages.  When planning and carrying out the Decade, it is important to have transparent and inclusive processes.  Meaningful participation by indigenous peoples both nationally and internationally is crucial.  At the same time, the States’ involvement and active participation is essential.  It is important that the States cooperate and make joint efforts to preserve and develop the indigenous peoples’ languages in their area.  To succeed in this, modern language technology is an important element.  Partnerships among technologists, policymakers and language users are central to secure the indigenous peoples’ languages place in future societies.

The representative of Australia said that, of the 250 original Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, almost half are no longer spoken, with many others at risk of extinction.  Australia welcomes that the International Decade will represent the Asia region on the first rotation of the Global Task Force.  While much has been lost, Australia is committed to supporting its indigenous peoples to lead the way in preserving the nation’s first languages to ensure this precious resource is made available to future generations.

The representative of Peru said that, in his country, 48 indigenous or native languages are spoken by more than 4 million people, almost 16 per cent of the entire population.  Speaking an indigenous language has historically been a disadvantage in accessing public services.  To move from a monolingual to intercultural State that embraces linguistic diversity, 455 speakers of indigenous languages have been trained as interpreters and translators of 37 indigenous languages.  The Government has also approved the ethnolinguistic map to provide public services in the relevant indigenous languages.

Forum member Aleksei Tsykarev (Russian Federation) stressed the importance of planning, the need for measures to revitalize indigenous languages, as well as support for information and communications technology.  He asked the presenters what the most important recommendation was from the report by an external group and how quickly UNESCO can bring in specialists to the Global Task Force.  He also asked if the website for the Decade will be available in Russian.

Forum member Irma Pineda Santiago (Mexico) said States should engage in dialogue with indigenous peoples, underscoring the need to produce measurable results.  She also stressed the need for ensuring financing for implementation of the Decade.

Making concluding remarks, Ms. Keskitalo said that the most important lesson learned from the International Year was the participation of indigenous people.  Funding is key to ensuring their participation in the preparation and implementation of the Decade because they do not have the resources that Member States have.  The Global Task Force needs to secure resources for interpretation services for indigenous representatives.

Also today, the Permanent Forum also held a discussion on its six mandate areas — economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights.

The speaker for the Indigenous Information Network said that indigenous women in Africa continue to face critical impacts of poor health, environmental injustices, discrimination and inequalities.  The recognition of the right to a healthy environment allows indigenous women and girls to implement their knowledge and help protect their cultural, social and economic rights.  The pandemic has increased sexual and reproductive health challenges worldwide and there is a need for Governments to implement the commitments they made during the summit of the International Conference on Population and Development held in Nairobi in 2019.  States should eliminate barriers to education and sexual and reproductive health services for indigenous women.

The representative of Finland, speaking on behalf of Nordic countries, said it is essential to maintain close dialogue with indigenous peoples and enhance their meaningful participation to better support resilience of their communities.  The Arctic Council has stressed the importance of indigenous knowledge and a community-based approach in response to the pandemic.  Similarly, their enhanced participation in the United Nations is crucial.  Furthermore, it is important to monitor the consequences of climate change on health and the well-being of indigenous peoples.  The Nordic countries underline the need to pay special attention to protect and empower indigenous women and girls who still suffer from multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, both as women and as indigenous individuals.  This Forum should exchange information on this issue.

A speaker for the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and Caribbean said that, during the pandemic, indigenous languages played an important role in disseminating and promoting prevention and protection measures.  From Latin America and the Caribbean, concrete steps have been taken to preserve, promote and revitalize indigenous languages in the run-up to the launch of the International Decade.  The Heads of State and Government at the 21 April Ibero-American Summit approved the establishment of an institute for indigenous languages designed to revitalize the indigenous languages that are an intangible heritage and a human right of native peoples.

The representative of Canada said his country’s Government is committed to advancing meaningful reconciliation and accelerating the renewal of the Crown’s relationship with indigenous peoples based on an affirmation of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.  This means addressing the systemic inequalities they face.  Canada recognizes the value of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a foundational element for reconciliation and for rebalancing the relationship between the State and indigenous peoples.  Canada remains committed to passing codeveloped legislation to implement the Declaration, which is currently before the House of Commons.

A speaker for the Asia Indigenous People’s Caucus said some Member States in her region recognized indigenous languages, calling on UNESCO’s greater efforts on this matter.  She also urged the Forum to identify and document the number of indigenous people and recognize official indigenous languages, also calling for the introduction of indigenous languages to be taught in school and used in public institutions.

The representative of Paraguay said that 19 indigenous languages are part of her country’s cultural heritage.  The Government shoulders responsibility for preserving indigenous languages, boosting efforts to revitalize them, and introducing various laws to this end while allowing their access to health, education and justice services in their own languages.

Forum member Geoffrey Roth (United States) presented an overview of the regional dialogues held in preparation for the current session prepared by Forum member Bornface Museke Mate (Namibia), who was not present due to technical difficulties.

Also participating were the representatives of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation, International Indian Treaty Council, Mujeres Indígenas Por La Conservación, Investigación Y Aprovechamiento De Los Recursos Naturales — Red Lac — Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, Indigenous Peoples’s Organisation‑Australia, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti and Inuit Circumpolar Council.  Representatives of the Philippines, Namibia, Bangladesh, Guatemala, Cuba and Latvia also spoke, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The Permanent Forum will reconvene at 9 a.m., Thursday, 29 April, to continue its work.

For information media. Not an official record.