Rights Out in Madrid

Indigenous Peoples’ rights were denied at COP25, but their voices still were heard

December 18, 2019

5:01 pm

The just-concluded COP25 — this year’s iteration of the UN’s annual climate change conference, which took place in Madrid, Spain — has been widely panned as a failure. A “staggering” failure, in fact.

Reasons include the fact that no deal was reached on a carbon market (this was punted to next year’s Glasgow COP26). Also, the deal reached on the “loss and damage” mechanisms that will award funding from big-polluter countries to smaller countries was watered down. (See here for a list of other failures of COP25.)

But one other important misstep by the powers that be was an exclusion of voices not inherently represented by the 193 Member States of the UN: those of indigenous peoples, who in so many cases are living on the front lines of the climate emergency, and who bear the brunt of its most ravaging consequences. In fact, as reported by the environmental platform Mongabay, another jaw-dropping outcome of COP25 was that “Paris Agreement language assuring ‘human rights, the right to health, [and] rights of indigenous peoples’ was stripped from COP25 official documents.”

Mongabay went on to note that “In one of the bigger reversals outraging activists at COP25, Brazil, Australia, and Saudi Arabia had human rights language stripped from Article 6 in defense of national sovereignty. It remains out of the text, but developing nations and civil society have pledged a brutal fight at COP26 to restore not only the language, but an honest commitment to human rights in climate policy.”

This indignity to indigenous peoples compounded difficulties that began in October, when the original host, Chile, dropped out of their hosting commitment because of deadly rioting and social unrest in that country. Canceling the planned COP25 a mere six weeks before it was supposed to take place, and moving the venue 6,500 miles across the ocean, had a tremendously negative effect on these committed, and not-well-funded, activists.

As reported by Cultural Survival (an NGO that advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples), “The move impacts Indigenous Peoples and delegates coming from the global south who are facing obstacles in obtaining visas, in event planning and implementation in this short period of time. Delegates will be greatly impacted financially with added air travel costs to Europe, costs of changing travel and housing plans, and differences of costs on the ground such as food and ground transportation.”

Once those who made the trip did arrive, they faced shameful incidents such as being kicked out of the conference hall where negotiations were taking place. As reported by the climate-action NGO 350.org, “The UN and countries want to recognize the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples but chose not to recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is a pattern that takes place around the world, from Chile to the halls of COP25, to every place where local communities and Indigenous Peoples are fighting for their rights and their future.”

There were moments to celebrate.

Time Magazine’s recently minted “Person of the Year,” Greta Thunberg, called for a press conference in Madrid. Once assembled, she ceded the floor to indigenous voices. Given her current standing as global spokesperson for the climate movement, she guaranteed press coverage that would have otherwise been unreported. (See a video recap of the event by Now This here.)

“It is so incredibly important that we listen to indigenous peoples because they are suffering and their rights are being violated across the world, and they are also the ones that are being hit the most by the climate emergency,” said Thunberg at the event’s conclusion.

Indigenous peoples also made their presence felt in Madrid by (as reported by, among others, the climate platform Grist):

  • Protesting the Teck Frontier tar-sands mine in front of the Canadian embassy
  • Blocking the road leading to the entrance of the conference center with a yellow sailboat inscribed with the words “Climate justice now!” (written in the six official U.N. languages)
  • SustainUS, a youth-led climate and justice NGO, sent an all-indigenous delegation to COP25.

The leader of that delegation, Orion Camero, had this response (to Grist) after he and other activists were removed from the proceedings: “It is ironic that the hashtag emblazoned all over the venue says #TimeforAction, and yet when we do we are kicked out of the talks while polluting corporations are allowed to use the climate talks as a greenwashing marketing scheme.”

A similar irony was articulated by Kera Sherwood-O’Regan, an indigenous-rights activist from New Zealand. “We can’t help but feel the irony of your refusal to include human rights and indigenous peoples’ rights in Article 6 [of the Paris Agreement] when we know that market approaches have already directly harmed our communities.” (See video of her speech here.)

As Thunberg noted, it is essential that we listen to indigenous people, particularly as pertains to the climate crisis. “They have been living in balance with nature for hundreds of years, so we need to listen to them, because they have valuable knowledge we need in this crucial time of crisis.”

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