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Almost Half World’s Languages Risk Disappearing, Deputy Secretary-General Warns, Urging Action to Preserve Indigenous Cultures, in Message for Global Observance


Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohamed’s remarks on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, in New York yesterday:

I am pleased to welcome you to this celebration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Today is an opportunity to acknowledge the diversity and wealth of knowledge that indigenous peoples possess, and to recognize the richness they bring to humankind.

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world today.  They are making their voices heard on many fronts.  Indigenous women and men are advocating for sustainable livelihoods from one generation to the other.  They are defending biodiversity and the integrity of ecosystems and raising the alarm over the growing impacts of climate disruption.

In the lead up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, indigenous peoples spoke about Mother Earth, a concept that encapsulates wisdom that humankind has neglected and that is now featured in the Paris Agreement as an equivalent to climate justice.  Together, indigenous peoples are mobilizing to defend their ways of life, cultures and languages, which are often rooted in harmony with the natural world. 

This year marks the International Year of Indigenous Languages, declared by the United Nations General Assembly to draw attention to the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote our indigenous languages.  Almost half the world’s estimated 6,700 languages are in danger of disappearing.  Most of these belong to indigenous peoples.  With every language that disappears, the world loses a wealth of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage.

Education has a pivotal role to play in ensuring that indigenous peoples can enjoy and preserve their culture and identity.  Intercultural and multilingual education will be necessary to prevent irreparable loss.  Failure to provide multilingual and intercultural education puts indigenous peoples at a disadvantage, threatening their very survival.

This year, under the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, we looked at how we are advancing towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In particular, we looked at the progress around the following six goals:  Sustainable Development Goal 4, which emphasizes the importance of relevant, equitable and inclusive education; Sustainable Development Goal 8 on sustainable and inclusive growth and employment; Sustainable Development Goal 10, calling for reduced inequalities; Sustainable Development Goal 13, underscoring the urgent action needed to combat climate change and its impacts; Sustainable Development Goal 16, promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice, and accountable institutions; and finally, Sustainable Development Goal 17, which seeks to strengthen our means of implementation, and the partnerships and collaboration that are needed.

These goals are closely linked to today’s observance of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. 

On this International Day, we must remember and highlight that indigenous peoples in many parts of the world still do not enjoy basic rights.  They endure systematic discrimination and exclusion which threaten their ways of life, cultures and identities.  Such barriers are compounded for indigenous women and girls, who also face gender-based violence and discrimination. 

The promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals is to leave no one behind and to reach the furthest behind first.  We must make every effort to enable indigenous peoples to fully enjoy their rights as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Taken together, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the outcome document of the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples and the 2030 Agenda form the frameworks and tools required to close the gap between words and actions. 

Some Member States are taking steps to revitalize and strengthen indigenous languages.  We are encouraged by these efforts and call on other countries to do so in close cooperation with indigenous peoples.  We must do more for indigenous languages to flourish, so we may retain the wealth of knowledge and cultures that are part of the world’s rich diversity.  That is our strength and not our weakness.

I count on the political will of Member States to support indigenous peoples in determining their own development through policies that are inclusive, equitable and accessible.  Indigenous peoples must be engaged in every step of this process, from the conceptualization to implementation. 

The United Nations stands ready to support all initiatives aimed at realizing the rights and aspirations of indigenous peoples, including through its system-wide action plan on the rights of indigenous peoples.  On this International Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to work together to realize the rights of indigenous peoples, sooner rather than later.

As the International Panel on Climate Change report that comes out today focuses on land degradation, it is important to re-emphasize that we will stand with those human rights defenders and defenders of our environment, of our habitat, that are persecuted.  We should put a stop to that and have zero tolerance for it.

And on this day we remember those who are fighting for indigenous peoples and their habitat.

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