The forgotten tribes search for their brave new world

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The Independent Online
Otepaa - In a village theatre deep in the Estonian forest, Rosemary Roe takes the stage. She speaks in a soft voice about the destitution of her people - the Aboriginals of Australia - about her nephew, driven to suicide at the age of 11; about drugs, crime and hopelessness. She has travelled thousands of miles to tell the world and here, at the end of a dirt track 150 miles south-east of Tallinn, someone is at last listening.

Ms Roe's audience hang on her every word and politely wait for their turn to regale one another with more horror stories of the late 20th century.

The Tibetans and the Ogoni are here, there is a good turn-out from the ethnic cauldron of the Indonesian archipelago, and the resilient Chechens in their astrakhan hats are flashing their new gold teeth.

Thirty-eight delegations, representing about 100 million of the planet's unrepresented, have made it.

Welcome to the fifth general assembly of the Unrecognised Nations and Peoples Organisation, the "alternative UN" for the world's dispossessed.

It was the biggest event in Otepaa this week, though it is doubtful if it can be compared to a UN jamboree in scale.

The distinguished delegates were billeted in a ramshackle Soviet-era hotel by the side of the lake once blessed by the Dalai Lama.

The rooms were Spartan, the corridors, lined with brown linoleum, were straight out of a cell-block design.

The food was simple, and for entertainment the delegates had been advised to bring their swimming trunks. In the evenings, the organisers put on a show.

For three nights the programme consisted of Finno-Ugric folk songs, then came Finno-Ugric folk dances, and last night's gala climaxed in Estonian popular songs. The Hungarians of Romania must regret not showing up.

But it was cheap. UNPO, a registered charity, is kept afloat by various Western foundations and donations from the Dutch, Danish and Norwegian governments.

Most of the staff, based in The Hague, are unpaid volunteers. Out of its meagre resources, the organisation produces reports on human- rights violations, monitors conflicts and elections, and lobbies the gravy-train end of international organisations.

You do not need to be oppressed to belong to this club, but it helps. With the glaring exception of Scania, a linguistically distinct region in southern Sweden better known for the eponymous truck, all members have suffered discrimination in their recent history, and some have been subjected to attempted genocide.

They come to UNPO because there is nowhere else to turn. Ms Roe tried getting people in her own country interested in the plight of Aboriginals, but to no avail.

"I am here because I am just pissed off with Australia altogether," she says after her speech.

Her sentiments are echoed by another delegate from another supposedly advanced country. Germaine Tremmel, Chief of the Lakota and a direct descendant of Sitting Bull, claims to have spent four years in a US jail because she fought for the rights of her people.

"We can never win against the federal government in court," she says. In any case, "we do not accept their laws."

To join UNPO, applicants must demonstrate that they represent a "group of human beings which possesses the will to be identified as a nation or people".

Members should respect human rights and strive to resolve conflict peacefully. The definition goes on for a few more paragraphs, but even with the small print it is still considerably looser than the criteria laid down by the UN.

The flexibility is deliberate. Set up in 1991, mostly by Tibetans and the nations emerging from the carcass of the Soviet Union, the founders wanted to ensure no peoples were forgotten. Hence the tolerant inclusion of Scania and a few doubtful minorities.

Many of the founders have, nevertheless, graduated to full nationhood, with all the perks that entails. Of the first batch, Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia and Palau have gained entry to the United Nations, and the Chechens, threatened with extinction two years ago, appear to be on the verge of independence.

A happy ending, perhaps? - Unlikely. Wickedness seems inexhaustible, and just as UNPO and other international organisations put out one fire, another forest is ablaze.

Take Abkhazia, a Caucasian land impoverished but peaceful for two years after a Russian-sponsored war of independence against Georgia, a founder- member of UNPO.

The Russian peace-keepers' mandate expires at the end of this month, and Muradin Urchukov, the Abkhazi delegate, is fearful that the Georgians will march straight back.

"If we had a choice between two evils, we'd rather choose Russia than Georgia," Mr Urchukov says. The oppressed, history tells us, make very good oppressors.