August 9, 2008 was International Day of the World's Indigenous People. In a speech given on the occasion, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura stated that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “acknowledges the significant place that indigenous cultures occupy in the world and their vital contribution to our rich cultural diversity, which constitutes, in the words of its preamble, ‘the common heritage of humankind’.”
The Director-General went on to say that “By approving this landmark Declaration, the UN has taken a major step forward in the protection and promotion of indigenous peoples’ rights in terms of culture, language, and education within the larger human rights framework and has sent a clear signal in this regard to the international community,” adding “it is now the responsibility of the United Nations (in particular UNESCO in its capacity as the specialized agency of the UN for culture, science, education, and communication) to ensure that this message is widely disseminated, understood, and—most importantly—translated into concrete policies that will enable indigenous peoples to participate fully and equally in national and international life.”
Indeed, stated Mr. Matsuura, “the new Declaration echoes the principles of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001) and related Conventions, most notably the 1972 World Heritage Convention, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.” According to the Director-General, “each of these recognizes the pivotal role of indigenous peoples as custodians of cultural diversity and biodiversity.” However, “in seeking to promote and protect indigenous cultures, these standard-setting instruments also recognize the vulnerability of many of those cultures, the material, environmental, and spiritual conditions of indigenous peoples, their worldviews, and their intimate relationship with the land and natural resources in our rapidly changing world.”
The full text of the speech by the Director-General is available online at the UNESCO website.