23 May 2013
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on New Legal Frameworks for Africa’s Indigenous People


A positive trend was emerging towards consolidated legal frameworks for the rights of Africa’s 50 million indigenous people, said experts at a Headquarters press conference today, as they convened on the margins of the twelfth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.


“This is an opportunity for Africa to go forward,” said Simon William M’Viboudoulou, a member of the Permanent Forum.  He emphasized that, while the Forum’s half-day session on Africa today was a chance to showcase steps being taken by African States to mobilize support for indigenous peoples’ rights, it also allowed stakeholders from around the world to engage in a dialogue about challenges that remained.


Many African States had supported the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he said.  However, “we have to encourage [countries] forward” in helping to protect and promote the rights of their indigenous peoples.  In that vein, the Permanent Forum and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples needed to pay special attention to the important half-day session and to the challenges facing Africa’s indigenous groups.


Joining Mr. M’Viboudoulou today were Laurent Tengo, Legal Adviser to the President of the Republic of Congo, and Albert Kwokwo Barume, Senior Specialist on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Issues of the International Labour Organization (ILO).  Noting that his country had held a number of international meetings on the issue of indigenous peoples’ rights, Mr. Tengo stressed that “ Africa should not stay on the sidelines in this process” of the evolving global indigenous rights movement.


He also pointed out that many African nations were currently working to ratify the legally binding International Labour Organization Convention 169, which deals specifically with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.  The African Union Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights had also created a Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africa. “There is a new consciousness being born in the mind of Africa” with regard to indigenous rights, he stated.


That new consciousness, he told correspondents, extended to the judicial arena, as the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights had been granted competence to judge cases related to indigenous peoples’ rights.  In March, that Court had issued a historic ruling preventing the eviction of the minority Ogiek community from their ancestral home in Kenya.  Based on that judgement, the Kenyan Government was now taking the necessary actions to reinstate the Ogiek back onto their land.


For his part, Mr. Barume said that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights had taken a lead role on indigenous peoples’ rights.  Importantly, the Commission had helped conceptualize what “indigenous” meant in Africa.  Today, that was a clear, well-defined and non-controversial term.  Although such efforts should be strengthened, there was a positive trend across Africa towards consolidating legal frameworks for indigenous peoples’ rights.


In that respect, the Permanent Forum’s half-day session on Africa was “an opportunity to take stock and think, and to learn from developing good practices”, he said.  However, many important questions on the issue of indigenous peoples’ legal rights remained.


Responding to a number of questions, including one on visits of Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights James Anaya to Africa, in particular to Namibia, Mr. M’Viboudoulou said that, when Mr. Anaya had visited the Congo, the country had been in the process of establishing its laws on indigenous peoples.  The State’s openness to dialogue had helped to improve the situation of its indigenous population, including implementing the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations.


“We all know the problems facing the indigenous people of Namibia,” he said of that particular visit.  However, it was important to consider that accepting Mr. Anaya’s visit — and engaging in dialogue on the issue — showed political will on the part of the Namibian Government.  He was confident that things would soon change for the San, one of that country’s indigenous groups.


Asked what was being done to educate mainstream populations about the rights of indigenous peoples, Mr. Tengo responded that there was a longstanding belief in many countries that indigenous people were part of the nation, and that there was no reason to take particular measures to protect them.  The first challenge was to break away from that thinking.


The second challenge, he continued, was the state of underdevelopment that generated poverty and intolerance.  Indigenous peoples lived mostly in poverty, and changing that would require the political courage to take proactive measures.  In addition, indigenous peoples themselves needed to “take their destiny in their hands” and defend their own rights, he said.


On the same question, Mr. Barume stressed the need to address historical injustices against African indigenous peoples, in particular with regard to the annexation of land.  Acknowledging those injustices was the first step, he underscored, as “you cannot correct a mistake that you do not first recognize”.  It was also critical to legally address those wrongdoings, and then to implement laws and educate the mainstream community.


Responding to a question about mechanisms in place to boost the education of indigenous peoples, Mr. M’Viboudoulou said that access to education was a basic human right and that it was essential to help indigenous peoples move forward.  States needed to balance the goal of reintegrating indigenous people on the one hand, and preserving their cultures on the other hand.


Mr. Barume added that education was one of the most difficult issues to deal with in the context of indigenous peoples.  Forcing indigenous children into educational systems that were destructive to cultures and traditions had been one of the greatest mistakes made by settlers on other continents, he said, noting that Africa could learn from those mistakes.  Moreover, the most important thing was to recognize that indigenous peoples had the right to make their own choices on the education they wished to give their children.


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For information media • not an official record