Native peoples find strength in numbers: Caroline Moorehead in Geneva hears how an indigenous woman from Guatemala became a skilled and powerful negotiator

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IT WAS in 1982 that Rigoberta Menchu, a young indigenous Quiche from Guatemala, first told her story to a conference in Geneva. The daughter of a peasant who had been imprisoned for defending his fields against the army and rich landowners, she had seen him and her brother tortured and burnt alive, and later her mother arrested by the military, hung up, and left to die slowly. The audience, a small gathering of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which convenes every July for two weeks, listened and was appalled.

Today, Rigoberta Menchu is a candidate for the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, and the Working Group has become an international forum in which indigenous people from all over the world air their grievances. It has grown over the years and now occupies one of the larger halls in the United Nations building. Yesterday, after two weeks of deliberations, the vital three-day Technical Meeting opened: the views expressed in the past fortnight are to be turned into conclusions and resolutions.

Out of these will come the next step towards the long-awaited Declaration on Indigenous Rights, and commitments by inter-governmental agencies on plans for next year, which has been declared by the UN as the International Year of Indigenous People. (The indigenous people hoped for 1992, but the plan was sunk by the Spaniards, who wanted 1992 to commemorate the encounter between Christopher Columbus and the New World - one of the great disasters in the history of tribal people.)

Along the grey corridors of the Palais des Nations, normally filled with sober officials, are to Be seen Moluccans and Maoris, Inuit and Indians, Aborigines and Cree. This year, representatives from groups in more than 40 countries have turned up, alongside officials from many governments who come to deliver defensive statements on national policy.

The tribal people see this gathering as the one international arena in which they may have the political leverage they lack at home and in which they can report violations and repressions without fear of discrimination.

Largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, the Working Group is making remarkable progress. In a world where resolutions are notable for their equivocations and compromises, this gathering has become one of the rare exercises in standard-setting throughout the entire UN. Here, human rights law is taking shape, not in the hands of intermediaries or non-governmental organisations, but those of the indigenous people themselves.

Those, like Rigoberta Menchu, now leader of the Committee for Peasant Unity of Guatemala, who return each year to Geneva, have become skilled negotiators. The veterans have few doubts about the usefulness of their visits. They have seen large areas ceded to tribal people in Latin America, government funding for aboriginal projects in Australia put under aboriginal management, territories in Canada returned to the Inuit, and minerals in Greenland shared equally between Denmark and a tribal people, while the Cree in Canada have challenged a hydro-electric scheme with some success.

True, indigenous people - of whom there are said to be more than 200 million throughout the world - continue to be persecuted, their lands confiscated and their cultures ignored. But it is becoming harder for governments to dismiss tribal claims.

Two issues have dominated this year's debates, as they have dominated every meeting since the early 1980s. At the heart of every statement - 80 speakers this year, given 10 minutes each to make their case - are calls for self-determination and economic justice, in the form of land and resources. No government finds either claim easy, but this year the Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Robert Tickner, made an unprecedented concession when he announced that he could 'live with self-determination'.

But whether governments will concede any real economic power, especially over natural resources, remains highly uncertain.