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COVID-19: Indigenous peoples’ voices must be heard, says UN expert

NEW YORK (12 October 2020) - Indigenous peoples have largely been left out of COVID-19 responses globally and the pandemic is likely to worsen inequalities and racism in wider society, a UN human rights expert said today.

"Indigenous peoples are likely to be among those hardest hit by the impending global recession, extreme poverty and escalating rates of malnutrition," said Francisco Calí Tzay, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said in a report to the General Assembly in New York.

The UN expert called for pandemic emergency protocols to be developed jointly with indigenous peoples, consistent with their individual and collective rights. And, he said, response plans must recognise and incorporate traditional indigenous knowledge.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the most widely-recognised comprehensive international standard, and its implementation is key to ensuring indigenous peoples are not left behind in the COVID recovery process, Calí Tzay said.

"The pandemic truly highlights how the failure to recognise the collective dimension of indigenous peoples' rights can result in many indigenous communities being less resilient to the health and economic impacts of the global crisis," he said.

The UN expert said he had received over 150 direct and indirect testimonies in compiling the report. "One of the trends I observed is that those indigenous peoples who are able to decide how best to protect their communities and to use their collective lands, including for subsistence farming, are the least affected by the virus and the disruption of the global economy," he said.

The report also highlights how resilience to the pandemic is increased when indigenous peoples can exercise their right to administer their own health and community programmes, complemented by accessible and non-discriminatory national health and education systems. "In practice, indigenous peoples are denied the necessary support to operate their own institutions and in many cases left with no choice but to exclusively rely on their own traditional medicine to cope with the virus," said Calí Tzay.

The report also highlighted that where national protocols had been adopted to address the particular situation of indigenous peoples, they had often come late and were

underfunded, and without the necessary consultations to ensure the specific resiliency and needs of indigenous peoples were properly addressed.

"Now is the time for governments to give indigenous peoples an active role in national recovery planning and implementation, ensuring protection of their collective identity and cultural survival, and recognising that indigenous wisdom can guide the path for the wider society towards a recovery that is in harmony with nature, also reducing the risk of future similar pandemics," he said.


Mr. José Francisco Calí Tzay (Guatemala) was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. for a three-year term commencing 1 May 2020. He is Maya Kaqchikel and the founder and member of a different indigenous organizations in Guatemala. He was President of the UN Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, a treaty body from which he was elected for four consecutive periods of 4 years each.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact- finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address

either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

For more information and media requests, please contact Claire Morclette (+41 22 928 9437, cmorclette@ohchr.org), Christine Evans (+41 22 917 9197, evans@ohchr.org) or write to indigenous@ohchr.org.

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Jeremy Laurence (jlaurence@ohchr.org). In New York: Jonathan Fowler (+ 1 917 208 6656 / jonathan.fowler@un.org).

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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