Two Medical Mission Sisters, Celine Paramundayil and Katherine Baltazar attended the 18th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues which were held on 22nd April 2019 in New York. The theme for this year was, ‘Traditional Knowledge-Transmission, Generation and Protection’, which was also coinciding with the UN designating 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, recognizing that the close to 40% of the world’s 6,700 languages are in danger of extinction, the majority of which are indigenous languages. Katherine Bartazar shares her experience of this session;
Having benefitted from being exposed to the value of traditional knowledge in my 5 years living among the Lakota, I was excited to attend this session. How appropriate that it should start with small choir of Onondaga children, reminding us with their songs, that we adults, the stewards of their future, hold the responsibility for leaving them a better world. Then as per protocol, the Onondaga Chief welcomed us on his ancestral land. His people are part of the Iroquois Confederacy that has had a long tradition of consensus making. He urged us to come together to become of ‘One Mind.’
The 4 days at the Forum, offered the opportunity to hear many indigenous voices. I attended several side events where indigenous voices had center stage. I heard from the grassroots of the Amazon, Indonesia, Chile, Sudan, Hawaii, Canadian First Peoples, New Zealand and the voices from the Artic regions. The spectrum ranged from positive recounts of governmental cooperation in support of clinics allowing traditional medicines and treatments, to stories of desperation (as in the case of the Amazon peoples) of governments not respecting the rights of indigenous cultures, leaving them open for exploitation under the same colonial mentality that has reigned since the Papal Bull "Inter Caetera," of 1493, that became the legal foundation sanctioning colonial domination ( which is still used for justification in land disputes in our Supreme Court).
With Celine’s membership in the UN NGO Committee on Mining working Group, Medical Mission Sisters becomes an ally to the indigenous peoples whose lands are exploited by mining companies. The issue of indigenous lands holding resources which national governments seek to exploit with the “free, prior and informed consent” of the indigenous communities, strikes at the soul of peoples who speak to us how their identity is cemented to the land. Without the land, they are not persons. Their traditional knowledge gathered by their ancestors over millennia, needs guarantees of means for transmission, generation and protection. The side event organized with MMS sponsorship, entitled Protecting Rights of Indigenous Peoples from the Grassroots Level presented a good range of voices from the grassroots all the way up to the policymaking levels.
It is precisely this kind of international spaces provided over the last 18 years at the UN, that voices of Indigenous Peoples have learned to become more adept at understanding and utilizing the UN system to advocate for their human rights. I have noticed a new boldness in more directly calling out the mentality of colonialism. I heard repeated calls for the right of “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”-or more locally translated as “nothing about us, without us”-to be respected. This reveals a growing self-confidence that pleases me to see.
These voices are now pushing for the enforcement of international instruments, such as the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), that recognize Indigenous Peoples to defend their rights. http://files.unicef.org/policyanalysis/rights/files/HRBAP_UN_Rights_Indig_Peoples.pdf
Pope Francis is also in their camp. Celine and I attended the session, “Toward an Integral Ecology: Responding to the Urgent Cries and Horizons of the Amazon," sponsored by the Holy See Mission. On Oct 6-27th, the Pope will convene a Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region in Rome, to give global focus on experience of the destruction and exploitation Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon are undergoing of their natural environment. This will include the Bishops of countries where most of the population is Catholic; Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela and Surinam.
My experience of annually having this privilege of stepping into the energy field of the UN to witness the importance for defending and supporting the voices of the oppressed, evokes in me a visceral response for continuing to support our presence at the UN. The UN remains the planet’s best hope for progressing towards Human Rights for all, and it gives me great pride knowing that Medical Mission Sisters, over its 25 years as an NGO at the UN, plays a part in the realization of this vision.