WORKING GROUP ON INDIGENOUS POPULATIONS
PROF. DR. ERICA-IRENE DAES
CHAIRPERSON RFAPPORTEUR OF THE WORKING GROUP ON INDIGENOUS POPULATIONS
WORLD CONFERENCE AGAINST RACISM, RACIAL DISCRIMINATION, XENOPHOBIA AND RELATED INTOLERANCE
4 SEPTEMBER 2001
Thank you, Madam Chairperson,
It is profoundly moving to be speaking here today, in a country that has been the focus of the global struggle to combat racism since the end of the Second World War and the birth of the United Nations.
The Second World War convenced us that humanity could not afford to tolerate racism. We built the United Nations system on the fundamental principie that international security can only be assured in a world that respects the freedom and dignity of all peopes.
Needless to say, the struggle against racism is not over. Laws cannot simply banish racism or declare that it is extent. It is necessary that people honour, appreciate, and respect the Laws: in particular, those people who have power and wealth. Public education, the mass media, and the arts must all play a role in promoting respect for the dignity and rights of others, as well as respect for the law. Freedom and justice are a state of mind, a culture of respecting and valuing one another.
But a culture of freedom and dignity must be nourished by justice. It is important that people see that justice is done in fact. I have seen too many countries where the Rule of Law and human rights are worshipped, but not practised. Justice may be written in the national constitution, and warmly endorsed by national leaders and the mass media, but it must also be a part of everyday life.
For many people, even in the oldest and most successful democracies, everyday life is filled with injustices - so many injustices, that people have grown tired of seeking justice. I speak of the poor, who know that they are condemned to remain poor because of their colour, their culture, their nationality, or because they are Indigenous or tribal peopes.
People must change: not only what they think and what they talk about, but what they do. Words can be important but action is indispensable. We live today in a world of appearances: a world of pervasive advertising and public relations, of "virtual reality".
It was here in Natal, nearly one century ago, that the great Mahatma Gandhi had the inspiration that shaped his entire political career. He wrote: "Man is man because of self-restraint". Whatever we say, it is important that we choose to act in a just way. GHANTI developed his strategy of passive resistance upon this principle: very simply, it is up to each of us to choose not to participate in an injustice. We generally associate the principies espoused by Gandhi with large, peaceful collective actions, but they also apply to our individual everyday lives. Each of us has an individual responsibility to act justly in any injustice.
The world has changed dramatically since Gandhi's time, and,
because of this, we must find new ways of exercising our individual responsibility to act justly.
Today, more of us can vote for our national leaders, and indeed, many more of us have the opportunity to seek public office. I am speaking not only of the many countries that have attained independence or adopted democratic institutions over the last century, but also about the women who comprise more than half of all humanity, but were almost universally disenfranchised when Gandhi was in Natal. Much of humanity is wealthier, as well; we consume more than ever. As we consume more, however, we may participate unwittingly in many injustices. The rapid growth of world trade and investment brings us closer together, and imposes new kinds of responsibilities on all of us: responsibilities to act iustly, and to exercise intellieent self-restraint.
Permit me to say something very briefly here about the problem of the definition of "indigenous peoples" in an African context. In one sense, of course, most Africans are indigenous because their ancestors came from Africa. But there is another meaning to the term, "indigenous'; and it has developed out of the efforts of the United Nations to do justice to hundreds of millions of neglected and oppressed people around the world, who all suffer from a particular form of racism based on their way of life: their religions, their means of subsistence, and their attachment to their lands.
This kind of discrimination cannot be eliminated by criticising tribalism, making everyone attend the same school systems, or declaring everyone to be equal as citizens of the state. That approach was tried and failed in the Americans, long before it was tried in Africa. Involuntary assimilation is the ultimate expression of racism. The result is an even deeper feeling of grievance and injustice, and an even more intractable social conflict. Freedom is about people having choices, not about people being exactly the same.
Indigenous and tribal peoples pose a challenge to our new international economic and political realities. The key challenge they present is not their claim to autonomy and self-determination - which, does not pose a real threat to the existence of states. I suggest to you that states' fears in this respect are unjustified, and constitute a distraction from a larger and more urgent issue. The key challenge posed by Indigenous peoples is their demand for ownership and control of their ancestral lands, territories and natural resources. In particular, indigenous peoples demand the right to withhold their lands from the global marketplace and with their free and express concerned to promote sustainable development. The
Indigenous challenge is fundamentally about self-restraint, rather than words.
I had the honour of serving as the Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations of 18 years. During that time, I was a witness to tremendous changes in wordd public opinion about Indigenous peoples, as well as dramatic changes in the status and recognition of Indigenous peoples within the United Nations system.
The United National responded very quickly to the growth of Indigenous peoples' voice and presence at international meetings.
Naturally, we must insist that words are followed by action. Thus far, the level of United Nations operational investment in the world's Indigenous peoples has been small: less than one tenth of one percent of the operational budget of the UN system, or roughly one cent for every Indigenous family. Indigenous peoples regard this as discriminatory, especially as they receive little or no assistance from most of the countries in which they live.
The Convention of Biological Diversity has been ratified by nearly every Member State; in Article 10 (s) it affirms the right of Indigenous peoples to continue the sustainable use of their lands and living resources. Removing Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, preventing them from managing their lands sustainable, or interfering with their accustomed uses of plants and wildlife on their ancestral lands, would clearly be
incompatible with the Convention. The land rights of Indigenous peoples were also acknowledged by UN Conference on Population and Development.
This Conference threatens to take us a step backwards, with regard to Indigenous peoples. It is true, as we see from some provisions and recommendations contained in the Draft Declaration and the Programme of Action. As an example, I would like to mention the second sentence of paragraph 27 of the Draft Declaration. But this conference has a responsibility to affirm those rights of Indigenous peoples that have already been recognized by Member States - and, what is more important to promote them further and to adopt measures to help ensure that those rights and fundamental freedoms are respected, protected and implemented.
I suggest respectfully to you that, in the case of Indigenous people's human rights, and in particular in the case of Indigenous people's land rights , it is time for action, not merely words. Most of the world's 300 million Indigenous people live within what some economists have described as "extractive frontiers" - that is, areas of intense new development activity in the mining and forest products sectors. Most of the world's Indigenous people also live within areas of exceptionally high biological diversity, as the World Wildlife Fund, recently reported. And, 1 am very sad to say, Indigenous peoples around the world are losing their lands faster than ever, especially as a result of growing foreign direct investment in certain parts of the world's community.
This is not to deny that some governments have taken important steps to protect Indigenous peoples and their territories, at least to the extent of adopting new legislation and policies. One thing that we must do then, at this conference, is recognise and address the economic dimension of governments ability to take effective action to combat racism. Governments should not Nave to choose between economic stability and human riVhts.
In the final analysis, however, it is not only national governments, but Indigenous peoples themselves who must act. Indigenous peoples should have the means to defend themselves and their territories by peaceful, legal and administrative means. They must not only have legal recognition of their land rights, but the institutional means to monitor and manage their lands. Indigenous peoples' grassroots capacity to administer their own territories, study and conserve their own living resources, and supervise any development activities they choose to allow, is a necessary step towards their genuine enjoyment of the right to own their lands peacefully and securely, without discrimination.
This has not happened, to any great extent, because some most governments have been reluctant to share power with Indigenous peoples. By not sharing lawful authority with Indigenous peoples, I believe that governments are actually increasing the likelihood of violence against Indigenous peoples, as well as increasing the likelihood of Indigenous peoples resorting to violence in self-defence. This is tragic, and unacceptable. Why has this been so? The answer to my question is very simple: racism.
I should like to recall that unfortunately certain Governments, and the political majorities that support governments, continue to regard all Indigenous peoples as a threat to the existence of States. This position is not justified and constitutes indeed a form of racism.
Why is this a form of racism? It is racism, because it is based solely on the fact that Indigenous peoples look different and profess different beliefs. It is not based on the actual record of Indigenous peoples' behaviours - their commitment to the rule of law, to peaceful negotiations, and to being good neighbours to other citizens. It would be very difficult to find any examples of rebellions or secessions, among the Indigenous peoples that have sought recognition and justice from the United Nations. And there are several countries where Indigenous peoples have achieved autonomy and self-
government very peacefully and successfully. Racism is the irrational belief that all people of a particular colour or background are inferior or dangerous. By this definition, it is very difficult to justify the persistent resistance of many governments to Indigenous peoples' aspirations - a resistance which, I submit, has prevented the United Nations from making much real progress in the field of Indigenous peoples' rights since the last international conference on racism nearly a decade ago.
Let us not leave Durban, without correcting that tragic mistake. Let us contribute to the creation of a better human and peaceful world , free from every form of racism and racial discrimination.
Thank you very much for your kind attention,
Erica-Irene A. Daes.