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Child rights Committee pushes forward indigenous agenda

21 October 2003

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has issued a series of bold recommendations during its 34th session, arising from a special one day General Discussion [1] on the rights of indigenous children. The recommendations cover many important issues under themes including non-discrimination, health, education, right to identity and family life, juvenile justice, and data gathering and statistics. The CRC recommendations effectively expand the provisions of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child to specifically address indigenous rights issues.

Previously indigenous children’s rights under the Convention were hampered because their often unique cultural, linguistic, social and territorial conditions and needs were not sufficiently considered. For example, in educational provision, indigenous children often lack teaching that is sensitive to their languages, cultural traditions, values and aspirations, which leaves them disadvantaged as adults. The CRC now calls on states to facilitate the participation of indigenous communities and children, and to ensure the development of more appropriate teaching practices and school curricula. In its preamble, the recommendations highlight that indigenous children are disproportionately affected by ‘challenges such as institutionalization, urbanization, drug and alcohol abuse, trafficking, armed conflict, sexual exploitation and child labour’.

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) has long called for greater provisions for minority and indigenous rights within the UN human rights system. This is felt particularly important given the lack of progress towards a Declaration on indigenous rights. The Committee has usefully elaborated on the provisions under Article 30 of the Convention, which specifically refers to the rights of minority and indigenous children to enjoy and practise their culture, religion and language. However, this has been expanded so that these rights may be ‘closely associated with territory and use of resources’, an acknowledgment that indigenous peoples hold as fundamental to their rights, but which is often denied as indigenous land rights are violated.

MRG welcomes the CRC reference within the recommendations to the work of UN bodies on collective rights, and its request for states to follow up on the Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. This requires states to provide specific and detailed information on indigenous children. MRG spokesperson, Graham Fox, stated: ‘As a first principle, MRG has pointed out the problem of lack of recognition of minorities and indigenous peoples by some states, resulting in a lack of disaggregated data on their situations. The unique circumstances of minority and indigenous children often leave them particularly vulnerable and marginalized within the state system. Human rights standards must reflect these differences if they are to be meaningful to indigenous and minority communities, and effectively used by those who seek to promote and protect indigenous rights.’

MRG believes that the CRC recommendations can take forward some key indigenous priorities. However this can only be achieved with full state cooperation, including the fulfilment of obligations under the state reporting procedures, to identify problems and develop actions plans to confront them. The Committee should strive to fulfil the promise and potential of these valuable new recommendations. MRG supports the Committee’s call for greater cooperation between human rights treaty bodies and UN mechanisms on indigenous issues, and for consideration of a global study on the rights of indigenous children.

Notes for editors

[1] The recommendations were based on a day of general discussion held on 19 September 2003. They may be found in English, Spanish and French, on the UN’s website for the Committee on the Rights of the Child.