Indigenous Peoples innovative process of establishing UNPFII and IWGIA's role in it


In May 2002, United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held its first official meeting in New York. This was as a result of a groundbreaking process where indigenous peoples in nearly a decade pushed the boundaries for how United Nations functioned and overcame difficult obstacles for their full and equal participation on the way.

Today, UNPFII is one of the most important mechanisms for indigenous peoples all over the world, as it is a high-level institutional body under ECOSOC where relevant issues for indigenous peoples are discussed by 16 independent experts, eight appointed by governments and eight nominated by indigenous peoples who are on equal footing in a consensus driven decision-process. Once a year, indigenous peoples meet during a two-week long meeting in the Forum, and it functions as an invaluable place for indigenous peoples to strengthen dialogue with Governmental delegations, build networks, exchange knowledge and information and mainstream key messages.

The development of a permanent forum for indigenous peoples

Before the establishment of UNPFII, indigenous peoples from most of the world met one time annually during a two-week session at the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. The first week was primarily focused on reviewing developments regarding indigenous peoples while the second week focused on elaborating on a draft for the later approved declaration of indigenous peoples’ rights. However, it was here the idea of having a more permanent UN mechanism with a broader mandate to promote indigenous rights and draw attention towards indigenous issues was born and initiated during the 1990’s.

At the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, the idea of suggesting the establishment of a permanent mechanism for indigenous peoples for the General Assembly to consider was first floated and in the following years more indigenous peoples and UN mechanisms endorsed the idea. In 1998 an Ad Hoc working explicitly with this aim was established by the Commission on Human Rights and in May 2002, the first official meeting was held.


1993 – World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, where the idea of establishing a permanent mechanism on indigenous issues was officially formulated

1995 – The first expert meeting on the possible establishment of a permanent forum, Copenhagen, Denmark

1997 – Second expert meeting on the possible establishment of a permanent Forum, Santiago, Chile

1997 & 1998 – The first and second International Indigenous Conference for the establishment of a permanent forum, Temuca, Chile & Kuna Yala, Panama

1998 & 1999 & 2000 – Regional Workshops on the establishment of a permanent forum

1999, Feb. – The first UN meeting of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the establishment of the Permanent Forum, Geneva, Switzerland

2000, Jan. – The Indigenous Copenhagen Meeting on the Permanent Forum. ´The Copenhagen Paper´

2000, Feb. – Second meeting of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the establishment of the Permanent Forum, Geneva, Switzerland

2000, April – The Commission on Human Rights vote for the establishment of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

2000, July – Ecosoc decide to establish the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

2000, Oct. – Second Indigenous Copenhagen meeting on the Permanent Forum

2002, May – First meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, New York


Read more about the history of the development of UNPFII in Jens Dahl’s book; IWGIA a history that you can download for free here

Why was the development of UNPFII groundbreaking?

Before the establishment of UNPFII, the United Nations consisted of only two different actors; States and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO). However, indigenous peoples purely denied being represented by either of these two actors and instead demanded to have their own representatives. Despite that the very core of United Nations is built on the nation-states, indigenous peoples demanded that their own representatives should have parity compared to the nation-states in the UNPFII and a structure with eight indigenous representatives and eight government representatives was thus developed. All representatives at the Forum have equal voting power when issues are taken to vote in the Forum.

Another way that indigenous peoples innovated existing UN structures was the unique process of ensuring a broad participation and engagement from indigenous peoples in the development of the composition and working procedures of the Forum. Firstly, indigenous peoples rejected the usual composition of using five regions but expanded it by incorporating North America, Arctic and the Pacific as their own regions too. Secondly, several meetings were arranged in each region, so that most indigenous peoples possible were engaged in the process at a local level and ensuring they were part of finding the solutions to difficult obstacles such as the location (Genève or New York), the name of it (Indigenous peoples or indigenous issues), the structure to choose representatives and several other issues that indigenous peoples solved during the process of developing United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues.

What was IWGIA’s role?

From the beginning of the discussions, IWGIA strongly supported indigenous peoples’ aspiration to establish a UN body at the highest possible level within the system aimed at strengthening dialogue and cooperation between the States, the UN system and the Indigenous peoples.

During this process of establishing the permanent forum, IWGIA always tried to maintain a neutral position on indigenous issues and supported indigenous peoples in their efforts to develop their own strategies and own proposals regarding the possibility of a new UN body. IWGIA thus played a vital role in the development of UNPFII as IWGIA among other things were deeply engaged in organizing the regional meetings and coordinated the efforts from indigenous peoples who tried to establish the Forum. However, it is important to note, that throughout the whole process of establishing a permanent UN body for indigenous peoples, IWGIA never had the role as a spokesperson for Indigenous peoples, as indigenous peoples, rightfully, not wanted any organisation to speak on their behalf except their own indigenous institutions and organisations.

Why is UPFII’s important for Indigenous peoples

Today, one of the most important functions of the Forum is its ability to provide a dialogue space between States, UN system and indigenous peoples. At the Forum they meet to discuss relevant issues and exchange experiences and opinions on how to advance the implementation of the declaration on indigenous peoples’ rights (UNDRIP). One of the main impacts by the Forum has been indigenous peoples’ impact on the rest of the UN system, particularly its UN agencies and Funds. Since the establishment of the Forum, many UN bodies have adopted specific policies related to indigenous peoples and developed specific programmes targeting indigenous peoples.

A key impact by the establishment of the Forum is therefore its ability to mainstream indigenous peoples’ key messages and ensure that indigenous peoples’ rights are recognized and implemented in related issues such as the Sustainable Development Goals, climate issues and gender issues, where indigenous peoples’ rights are not explicitly mentioned, but still has a crucial impact on their livelihood.


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