World Council of Churches Office of Communication
Press Update
150 route de Ferney, P.O. Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland
E-mail: media

19 April 1999

WCC Intervention to the UN Commission on Human Rights on Indiginous issues

The following is the full text of the intervention delivered on 18 April at the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, meeting in Geneva, 22 March-30 April 1999, by the World Council of Churches:

"Madam Chair, distinguished representatives,

The World Council of Churches continues to be concerned about the situation of Indigenous Peoples throughout the world and is grateful that this item of the Commission’s agenda provides the opportunity for those concerns to be heard by the Commission.

In reference to the Decade the World’s Indigenous Peoples we would like to focus on the proposed establishment of a permanent forum.

Madame Chair,

In the very year that the World Conference on Human Rights was held, at which a resolution was passed urging consideration of a permanent forum, the World Council of Churches faced a similar challenge. For over 25 years the member churches of the Council have given expression to the aspirations and demands of Indigenous Peoples through programmes, ecumenical events and, in the case of Australia, a series of high profile visits by ecumenical delegations to Aboriginal communities.

We, in the WCC, were in a not dissimilar situation to the United Nations itself. The Indigenous demands for justice -especially in regard to land, have been received; their voices were being heard in our councils and meetings; we tried our best to work and act in solidarity with them.

In 1994 I was appointed, as an Indigenous person, to be the Consultant to the WCC’s programme’s on Indigenous issues. This year that position has been made a permanent staff position - which signals that Indigenous programmes have their permanent place in WCC programmes. If you like, we have moved from discussing ‘about’ the permanent place to actually creating the permanent place.

The very fact that Indigenous Peoples are present within the WCC means it can learn what needs to be learned in ways that respect our Indigenous integrity and our understanding of ourselves..The WCC is moving from speaking about Indigenous issues and participation as being something ‘out there’ to actually being part of the WCC itself.

With Indigenous representatives present a healing process is taking place for churches and the ecumenical movement as a whole. In the past when Indigenous Peoples have spoken strongly the churches have not always listened, and doors have been shut. When Indigenous Peoples are present inside an institutional structure the changes start to happen from inside, instead of being seen and interpreted as a threat from outside. Now, as a permanent programme, we are part of the family speaking to the rest of the family.

One of the things which has concerned the WCC over the years has been why the reaction against Indigenous Peoples has been so negative. Why is there such a reluctance to even begin a genuine partnership - or even dialogue on an equal basis?

It is the WCC’s understanding of the dynamics of racism which has helped to understand this. We know that racism exists when one group, often dominant because of its numbers or historical actions, believes that its views about economics, spirituality, education, governance are superior to, or more relevant, than those of others. It is hard for them to shift from those assumptions. In fact when that shift does not happen it is a clear indicator of racism.

States, like the churches, often fail to understand, or reject, that at this period in world history which is engrossed in so much violence, the wisdom and experience of Indigenous Peoples have the potential to lead to peace building, not only among human beings, but within the whole of creation.

Madame Chair,

There is a contradiction in our affairs here in the Commission. We are occupied with the Decade, the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, the draft Declaration, the establishment of a permanent forum. Things are buzzing. At the UN level there is raised awareness of the legitimate participation of Indigenous Peoples. But this is not so at the local level. There, Indigenous Peoples are still under siege. Indigenous People die because they are not recognised as full participants in their state society. They continue to be threatened, denied their rights and placed in unlawful custody. Our efforts here must keep in touch with that reality. There must be an urgency about our work here. For we are engaged, not merely in kindly ways to include Indigenous Peoples in the UN system. We are part of the engagement against racism itself, which both the UN and the WCC, are clearly committed to bring to an end.

For more information contact:
Karin Achtelstetter, Media Relations Officer
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6153 (office);
e-mail: media
Top of page

1999 press updates

WCC homepage

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 336, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.