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Human Rights Review

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Follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights, New York 1998

VIII. Special protection

Rights of indigenous peoples

56. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action calls upon Governments to recognize the value and diversity of indigenous people's cultures and social organization. It reaffirms their unique contribution to the development and plurality of society (sect. I, para. 20; and sect. II, paras. 28-32). Positive steps have been made by several Governments to recognize through legislative means the distinctive identity of indigenous communities and to promote and protect the rights of indigenous people. In some countries, strategies have been designed to remould the relationship between Governments and indigenous populations. Several countries have introduced autonomous institutions, as well as other programmes specifically intended for indigenous people at the local and regional levels, including in such areas as education and language programmes. Governmental structures have also been established to assume responsibility for handling indigenous issues. In some cases, specific grievances and disputes have been mediated or are in the process of mediation. Some Governments also report on their involvement in the preservation of rainforests. Nevertheless, a great deal remains to be done in order to resolve the outstanding issues affecting indigenous people, including the crucial issue of land. National economic development can exert pressure on territory still in the hands of indigenous people. This could have adverse effects on the economies, habitats and social, religious and cultural life of indigenous people. A number of Governments have responded to this problem through dialogue with indigenous people.

57. The Working Group established by the Commission on Human Rights to review the draft United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples adopted by the Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities continues its work. Indigenous participation in the work of the United Nations system has increased: 15 indigenous organizations currently have consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Two workshops (at Copenhagen in June 1996 and Santiago in June 1997) have also dealt with the matter of the establishment of a permanent forum for indigenous peoples within the United Nations system. To date, no clear consensus has emerged on the terms of reference for such a forum. Recently, the Commission on Human Rights authorized the establishment of an open-ended inter-sessional ad hoc working group to elaborate and further consider proposals relating to this subject (see Commission resolution 1998/20). Meanwhile, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has developed into an annual platform for the exchange of views and experiences, which is now one of the largest international human rights gatherings. The Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations has provided resources for the participation by representatives of indigenous communities in the Working Group.

58. The International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1994-2003) offers a framework for programmes and activities to improve the conditions of indigenous peoples in such areas as health, education, development and human rights (see E/CN.4/1998/107). These include an indigenous fellowship programme, small grants for indigenous organizations and a series of workshops on indigenous issues. The United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Decade of the World's Indigenous People provides financial support to these activities (see figure III).

59. Recommendations of immediate priority should include adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the end of the Decade; continuing contributions to the Voluntary Fund for the Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples; working towards the possible establishment of a permanent forum on indigenous peoples within the United Nations system; and establishing strategies designed to improve relations between States and indigenous peoples.

Rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities

60. The World Conference on Human Rights urged Governments to promote and protect the rights of persons belonging to minorities, and to facilitate their full participation in the social, economic, cultural and religious life of society. Governments, in accordance with the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to Minorities, have focused on legal and institutional measures to protect the cultural, religious and linguistic integrity of minorities, ensure the participation of minorities in decision-making concerning questions involving their status, and to promote minority development. Several new constitutions ensure the protection of minorities. Laws concerning the status of minorities and the rights of their members have been enacted. School instruction in minority languages has been expanded. Policies of support to projects aimed at the preservation of cultural heritage, as well as special measures to reduce unemployment among minorities, have been adopted. Some Governments have established specialized institutions to deal with minority issues, which include representatives of minorities. A number of countries also report that they have ratified the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

61. It can be generally stated that the transition to democracy usually has a positive impact on the resolution of minority issues. It is also encouraging to note that protection of minorities is increasingly subject to bilateral and regional treaties and agreements. OHCHR provides assistance in drafting laws designed to protect and promote the identity and characteristics of minorities, and has also been involved in organizing training seminars on the rights of persons belonging to minorities and workshops on peaceful resolution of conflict involving minorities. Inter-agency consultations on minority issues have also been initiated by OHCHR with a view to enhancing such networks of exchange.

62. The Subcommission's Working Group on Minorities, established in 1995, has increasingly become a forum for dialogue between its members, Governments, non-governmental organizations and representatives of minorities. It has developed suggestions for future action that could revolve around (a) dissemination of information on successful measures adopted to promote and protect the rights of persons belonging to minorities, (b) advisory services and technical assistance in minority-related issues, (c) publications of human rights materials in minority languages, and (d) incorporation of training
on the rights of persons belonging to minorities within the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education.

63. In too many cases, however, minorities encounter problems that have often led to serious conflicts in the past. Refusal of the recognition of the needs of minorities by Governments, inadequate laws and policies protecting minorities, discrimination against minorities and intolerance should all be mentioned in this context. Resolution of these problems would be strongly facilitated by the recognition of the role of minorities in the cultural enrichment of the society.

Rights of internally displaced persons

64. The World Conference on Human Rights called for lasting solutions to questions related to internally displaced persons (IDPs), including their voluntary and safe return and rehabilitation (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, sect. I, para. 23). Unfortunately, five years later, this phenomenon continues to be one of the major challenges confronting the international community. The number of IDPs has now reached between 25 and 30 million. At the moment, the United Nations is monitoring serious problems of internal displacement in more than 35 countries.

65. The Secretary-General's Representative on Internally Displaced Persons has maintained a continuous dialogue with Governments (see E/CN.4/1996/52, paras. 34-44). He has called for a range of activities that will require the commitment of the entire United Nations family to implement. Among others, they include disseminating the normative standards on internal displacement and promoting their use by Governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations; training of United Nations staff members on internal displacement; monitoring problems of internal displacement; and establishing an institutional framework that could effectively promote and protect the human rights of IDPs. The Representative has also emphasized the importance of system-wide cooperation to eliminate the root causes of displacement and to assist victims. In accordance with a request made by the Commission on Human Rights, the Representative has developed a framework for the protection of displaced persons, as well as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (see E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2). The purpose of the Guiding Principles is to address the specific needs of IDPs worldwide by identifying rights and guarantees relevant to their protection. The Principles reflect and are consistent with international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It should also be noted that the World Bank has included the reintegration of displaced persons among the components of its new area of activity in post-conflict reconstruction. In cooperation with other components of the United Nations system, OHCHR is focusing on the protection of the human rights of IDPs, and the facilitation of their return and reintegration in conditions of safety and dignity. In the context of the Secretary-General's programme of reform, responsibility for effectively addressing the issue of IDPs has been assigned to the Emergency Relief Coordinator.

66. The reports of the Representative and contributions sent by Governments illustrate that the situation of IDPs has been increasingly recognized as a human rights problem and not only as a humanitarian or political issue. Numerous initiatives confirm this observation, such as the establishment of national institutions (ombudsman) to address the human rights of IDPs; national information campaigns for IDPs; training for national and international staff involved in assisting IDPs; and programmes for the safe return of IDPs. Special reference should also be made to regional initiatives. For instance, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) appointed a rapporteur on IDPs. A permanent consultation on internal displacement in the Americas has been created by intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations to increase protection and assistance for displaced populations. Regional conferences have been held, under joint United Nations and regional sponsorship, on population displacement in the Americas, as well as in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Great Lakes region, to elaborate on comprehensive regional frameworks, including preventive and development strategies. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Community have deployed staff in the field to defuse the tensions that typically cause displacement and to protect IDPs. Also, bilateral treaties concerning the resolution of problems relating to IDPs have been reported.

Rights of migrant workers

67. Concern over the rise in racist and xenophobic hostility against migrants, as well as their often vulnerable position in labour relations, prompted the World Conference to specifically call for the protection of the human rights of all migrant workers and their families (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, sect. II, paras. 33-35). The Commission on Human Rights, in its resolution 1997/75, established an intergovernmental working group of experts to gather information on the obstacles existing to the effective and full protection of the human rights of migrants and elaborate recommendations in this respect. While encouraged by the number of responses received to a questionnaire sent to Governments, the group noted that more than one third of the States responding to the questionnaire expressly recognized the existence of problems of prejudice, xenophobia or racial discrimination against migrants in their respective countries. This was interpreted by the group of experts as an empirical indication of awareness of widespread violations of the human rights of migrants (see E/CN.4/1998/76).

68. A number of reports submitted in the framework of the five-year review refer to measures undertaken at the national level to better protect migrant workers, including amendments of relevant laws; adoption of integrated governmental policies; and special adaptation programmes for newly arrived immigrants. The Secretary-General will submit to the General Assembly at its fifty-fourth session a comprehensive report on the problem of violence against women migrant workers. In spite of a clear invitation by the World Conference to ratify the 1990 International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, this treaty has not entered into force due to insufficient ratifications. Recently, a worldwide campaign to encourage ratification of this Convention was launched by non-governmental organizations, and has received strong support from ILO and OHCHR.

Rights of disabled persons

69. The World Conference called for national legislation to ensure equal access for disabled persons to all human rights and freedoms (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, sect. II, paras. 63-65). To facilitate this task, the General Assembly adopted Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (see Assembly resolution 48/96). A Special Rapporteur has been appointed within the framework of the Commission for Social Development to monitor the implementation of the Standard Rules. The General Assembly reaffirmed the continuing validity and value of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons, and decided that the third quinquennial review and appraisal of the Programme will be presented in 2002.

70. States have taken steps to ensure that the rights of the disabled are respected by all sectors of society by passing legislation that prohibits discrimination based on physical handicaps. In many cases, laws concerning labour and social affairs have also been amended to ensure equal access to health, legal and employment facilities. Some countries have repealed antiquated laws dealing with the compulsory treatment of mentally ill patients. Programmes designed to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, including the allocation of increased budgetary resources, have been developed in some countries. Special institutions have also been mandated to provide assistance services and programmes for persons with disabilities to facilitate their full integration in all areas of society. Vocational training plays an important role in this respect.

71. Consideration of relevant issues by the United Nations organs and bodies demonstrates, however, that mass shortcomings in the area of employment, education, nutrition and health care bring about an increase in the disabled population and create a major obstacle to the realization of human rights of persons with disabilities. Situations of armed conflict and indiscriminate use of anti-personnel mines, particularly among civilian populations, have especially devastating consequences in this regard. The improvement of the situation of disabled persons remains a significant challenge to the international community. Universal ratification of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on their Destruction would undoubtedly have an important preventive impact.

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