Indigenous peoples continue to face challenges to their rights

Exclusion and discrimination against the world’s indigenous peoples remain rife despite growing recognition of their rights, according to the UN.

by Kanaga Raja

GENEVA: While progress has been made in the formal recognition of indigenous peoples in several countries, 10 years after the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they overwhelmingly continue to face discrimination, marginalization and major challenges in enjoying their basic rights.

This was the assessment provided as the United Nations commemorated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 9 August.

“While indigenous peoples have made significant advancements in advocating for their rights in international and regional fora, implementation of the Declaration is impeded by persisting vulnerability and exclusion, particularly among indigenous women, children, youth and persons with disabilities,” said more than 40 UN system entities and other international organizations in a joint statement on 8 August.

Grouped under the Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues (IASG), these UN agencies and other organizations said that the Declaration was the culmination of tireless efforts by indigenous peoples and member states, among others, to design an instrument that would recognize both the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples.

As a result of such efforts, today, the rights contained in the Declaration constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity, well-being and rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.

“The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a unique opportunity for placing indigenous peoples at the centre of development as rights-holders and empowered agents of change. The 2030 Agenda and the Declaration are inseparable instruments for the implementation of the rights of indigenous peoples,” they underlined.

The recent decision of the UN General Assembly to proclaim the year 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages presents a unique opportunity to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages and to take further urgent steps at the national and international levels, they further said.

 “Making progress in realizing the objectives of the 2030 Agenda and the Declaration will require significant investments in building strong mechanisms and procedures for indigenous peoples’ meaningful participation, as a central pillar of engagement.”

This is needed to ensure that public policies, legislation and development plans take indigenous peoples’ priorities and concerns into account, said the Group.

Landmark declaration

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 13 September 2007, establishing a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples, according to a UN press release of 8 August.

The landmark document is the most comprehensive international instrument on indigenous peoples’ collective rights, including the rights to self-determination, traditional lands, territories and resources, education, culture, health and development.

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in some 90 countries around the world. Practising unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.

According to the UN press release, although some countries have taken constitutional and legislative measures to recognize the rights and identities of indigenous peoples, exclusion, marginalization and violence against indigenous peoples continue to be widespread.

Ahead of the International Day, a separate joint statement was issued on 7 August by Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, the Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The Declaration, which took more than 20 years to negotiate, stands today as a beacon of progress, a framework for reconciliation and a benchmark of rights,” they said in that joint statement. “But a decade on, we need to acknowledge the vast challenges that remain. In too many cases, indigenous peoples are now facing even greater struggles and rights violations than they did ten years ago.”

Indigenous peoples still suffer from racism, discrimination and unequal access to basic services including healthcare and education. Where statistical data is available, it shows clearly that they are left behind on all fronts, facing disproportionately higher levels of poverty, lower life expectancy and worse educational outcomes.

Collective effort

Meanwhile, in a statement issued on 8 August, the International Labour Organization (ILO) noted that the UN Declaration, along with the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169), has been a reference point for affirming and advancing the rights of indigenous women and men. Together, these instruments have guided public policymaking from the local to international levels, and have empowered indigenous communities to pursue their own development priorities, it said.

However, said the ILO, the situation is still far from acceptable. Indigenous peoples constitute a disproportionate 15% of the world’s poor whereas they are an estimated 5% of the world’s population.

“Indigenous women are commonly the poorest of the poor, discriminated against because they are indigenous and because they are women.”

The ILO said that the marginaliza-tion and social exclusion faced by indigenous peoples must be addressed as part of the collective effort to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“Our combined efforts – governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, indigenous peoples and their organizations, UN partners and others – can go a long way in ensuring that indigenous peoples are not left behind.”

A message was also issued on 9 August by Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), on the occasion of the International Day.

Bokova noted that indigenous peoples are custodians and practitioners of unique cultures and relationships with the natural environment. “They embody a wide range of linguistic and cultural diversity at the heart of our shared humanity. Protecting their rights and dignity is protecting everyone’s rights and respecting humanity’s soul, past and future.”

The protection and well-being of indigenous peoples has never been so important. Despite their cultural diversity and homelands across 90 countries, they share common challenges related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Bokova noted that UNESCO’s latest Global Education Monitoring Report provides concrete guidance and policy advice for the advancement of indigenous peoples’ rights.

UNESCO also launched the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme in 2002 to support governments in creating synergies between scientific and indigenous peoples’ knowledge.

“All this inspires UNESCO’s ongoing work to develop a Policy on Engaging with Indigenous Peoples to ensure a stronger implementation of the UN Declaration,” she said. (SUNS8521)            

Third World Economics, Issue No. 644, 1-15 July 2017, pp3-4, 15