AFRICA’S INDIGENOUS PEOPLES FACE NEGLECT, DISCRIMINATION, INTIMIDATION, FEEL THEY ARE ‘INVISIBLE’ TO WORLD COMMUNITY, UN FORUM TOLD

18 May 2006
HR/4892

AFRICA’S INDIGENOUS PEOPLES FACE NEGLECT, DISCRIMINATION, INTIMIDATION, FEEL THEY ARE ‘INVISIBLE’ TO WORLD COMMUNITY, UN FORUM TOLD

18 May 2006
Economic and Social Council
HR/4892
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Fifth Session

6th & 7th Meetings (AM & PM)

Africa’s indigenous peoples face neglect, discrimination, intimidation,

feel they are ‘invisible’ to world community, un forum told

For the first time in its five-year history, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today turned its attention to the plight of Africa’s indigenous peoples, with speakers from the continent warning that, while world Governments looked on impassively, many of Africa’s nomadic, agricultural, and hunting and gathering cultures were on the verge of extinction.

Following two days during which indigenous and tribal peoples -- from the Americas to Asia and the Pacific and from the Caribbean Islands to Arctic Russia -- recounted their struggles to hold onto their cultures, traditional lands and natural resources, representatives of, and experts on, Africa’s indigenous groups today said that they felt “invisible” to the United Nations and spoke passionately about the Government neglect, discrimination, intimidation, slavery, and other violations of human, political and civil rights they faced.

Forum members taking the floor emphasized the “newness” of the concept of indigenous peoples on the African continent.  They noted that, while a common argument put forward was that “all Africans are indigenous”, in fact, the complicated, ancient history of human migration in Africa had produced tribal groups and communities -- nomads, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers -- whose way of life, attachment or claims to particular lands and ecosystems, and social and political standing in relation to other more dominant groups, had resulted in their substantial marginalization within modern African States.

That marginalization, combined with the desire to recognize and protect both their collective and human rights, and maintain their traditional lifestyles in places like Africa’s equatorial rainforests, mountain ranges, the Rift Valley or the deserts of the Sahara and the Kalahari, led many of those peoples to call themselves “indigenous”.  Sadly, that label had engendered discrimination and political and economic marginalization on many fronts.  One speaker noted that in his country, Rwanda, the Government commonly denied indigenous Batwa Pygmies even the right to call themselves Rwandans.

On expert noted, however, that even though the issue “remained a difficult one”, many of the African Charter’s provisions offered protection to indigenous peoples.  For instance, it recognized collective rights, formulated as rights of “peoples”, which should be available to sections of populations within nation States.

But, as speaker after speaker from indigenous groups and civil society told the panel about the indignities they suffered –- from the routine bigotry, forced slavery and even cannibalism that indigenous Pygmy and Batwa people endured, to the poaching and predation of natural resources that crippled the development of the Maasai people -- one Forum expert called on the African Governments to talk to indigenous peoples in their countries.

They had a wealth of information about how to build a better Africa.  “Let us respect them and let us consult with them”, he said.  African Governments also needed to recognize the identity of indigenous peoples, provide education in native tongues and provide access to ancestral land.  One activist said she was saddened that, on a day when the Forum was focusing on sensitive issues regarding Africa, the hall was peculiarly bereft of diplomats from African Governments.  Another called on the Permanent Forum itself to press the United Nations system, as well as the world body’s African Member States to spare no effort to ensure that Africa indigenous people could secure and implement their fundamental rights.

Work in the region should be defined in the areas of building capacity and engaging with Governments, opening up spaces for dialogue on indigenous issues, another speaker added.  Engagement with Governments should not rest at the conceptual level, but lead to changes in policy and practice.  For example, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, jointly with the International Labour Organization (ILO), was assisting the Government in Congo with the drafting of a law on indigenous peoples.

Among other projects mentioned today was the ILO study of the Baka communities in Cameroon, to assess their perception of poverty and reflect on how to make the Millennium development Goals relevant to their needs, he said.  Currently, none of the Millennium Development Goals projects cover the Baka and they felt that no action was being taken on their behalf to eliminate hunger.  Paradoxically, with the implementation of some Millennium Development Goals programmes, such as road construction and building of settlements, the situation of that people could actually become worse, since their access to forests would be further restricted.

As that community’s interaction with external authorities increased, so did its sense of powerlessness.  The lesson that the ILO was drawing from the study was that it was necessary to increase engagement with Governments, indigenous partners, United Nations agencies and other actors on the ground, to establish partnerships for a rights-based approach to the Millennium Development Goals, with a real impact on the communities.

At the morning session, a continuation of the dialogue with agencies, Governments and indigenous groups, recommendations presented included:  elaboration of specific programmes to address indigenous peoples’ needs; appointment of international mediators for resolution of land and resource issues; efforts to return displaced people; participatory projects to stop desertification and deforestation; and partnerships with the use of indigenous knowledge and wisdom.

The Permanent Forum will reconvene at 3 p.m. Friday, 19 May, to continue its dialogue on indigenous people and attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.

Thematic Discussion on Africa

Muzangi Mbella Liliane, the Forum’s member from the Congo, opened the panel’s interactive discussion on the situation of indigenous groups in Africa, their human rights, and their efforts to attain the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals.  She said that it was a mistake to think that there were no indigenous people in Africa.  The ancient migration of peoples and tribes had sparked clashes and formed segmented societies long before Western colonization.  Therefore, African indigenous and tribal communities should not be denied access to traditional lands and resources, particularly the continent’s natural resources, vast amounts of which were in high demand worldwide.

One of the panellists, Kamel Rezag Bara, Member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights of the African Union, said that the question of the protection of the rights of indigenous populations was among the Commission’s priority thematic issues.  Among other things, the Commission had adopted a resolution on the rights of indigenous populations/communities in Africa and commissioned a study on the matter.  It had also established a Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africa, which he chairs.  A report prepared by the Group emphasized that Africa’s rich cultural diversity could have a rich potential for the development of States.  However, some of indigenous peoples are finding it very hard to survive on their own terms and establish a dialogue with States or dominant groups in regard of their sustainable development perspectives.

Among the examples of indigenous peoples facing great difficulties, he listed the Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region, the Bambuti in the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Baka in the Central African Republic and Gabon, and the Ogiek of Kenya.  A landmark report prepared by the Working Group identified a number of areas where indigenous peoples suffered from particular human rights violations, including violation of the right to land and natural resources, discrimination, denial of the rights to political representation, recognition and protection, access to water and violation of the right to health and education.  On the other hand, the document also registered some positive developments in such areas as recognition of cultural rights, constitutional recognition, more favourable development policies and, in some cases, even land rights issues.  Such countries as South Africa, Morocco, Mali and Ethiopia could be mentioned among the positive examples.

While the issue of indigenous peoples remained difficult in the African context, where an argument was put forward that “all Africans are indigenous”, many provisions of the African Charter offered protection to indigenous peoples, he added.  For instance, the Charter recognized collective rights, formulated as rights of “peoples”, which should be available to sections of populations within nation States.  When particular marginalized groups used the term “indigenous” to describe their situation, they used the modern analytical form of the concept in an attempt to draw attention to and alleviate the particular forms of discrimination they suffered from.

Johnson Ole Kaunga, the director of Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation (IMPACT), said Africa’s indigenous populations and communities were identified outright as second-class citizens and were systematically marginalized on the basis of their cultural identities and the traditions they practiced, which were considered “primitive” by some bureaucrats.  The key issues for Africa’s indigenous concerned the promotion and protection of their rights and resources, and ensuring the legal recognition of those rights.

Those communities were now demanding their rights to self-identity and citizenship, but, nevertheless, indigenous issues were traditionally invisible in Government polices and programmes.  Worse, despite the critical role they played at the community and village level, pastoralists and hunter gatherers were often considered as having no part to play in national development.  The right to land and access to traditional resources was actually the springboard to achievement of the Millennium Goals, he said.  And while it was clear that honest and practical political dialogue was the best way forward, most Government agencies were reluctant to admit that they had weak capacities to deal with indigenous issues.

Today’s third panellist, Saoudata Aboubacrine of the Tin Hinan –- a non-governmental organization working in several African countries -– mentioned indigenous peoples’ lack of access to information and education among the difficulties faced by those peoples.  Expressing concern about the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals as far as indigenous peoples were concerned, she said that despite the efforts made in the area of education within the framework of the Millennium Development Goals, the level of education in many indigenous communities was extremely low, for example.

Indigenous women in Africa lived in extreme poverty and were excluded from decision-making, she continued.  Decentralization, when well administered, could appreciably improve the lives of pastoral communities, as long as they were informed about the benefits and duties associated with related policies.  Specific peculiarities of the nomadic lifestyle should be taken into account, as well.  Education must be adapted to the situation of the communities.  Her recommendations included organization of workshops, promotion of collective rights, and recognition of the right to natural resources.

Interactive Dialogue

When the floor was opened to Forum experts, representatives of indigenous groups and non-governmental organizations, speakers noted that the discussion about indigenous and tribal peoples’ issues in Africa was still in an early phase.  “We are only now starting to explore and understand the magnitude of the issues, and their implications for governance, for human rights, for sustainable development and for conflict resolution on the continent”, a speaker said.

An expert said that the African continent was a “Cinderella” in the United Nations system, and something needed to be done about that.  He called on the African Governments to talk to indigenous peoples in their countries.  Those communities had a wealth of information about how to build a better Africa.  “Let us respect them and let us consult with them”, he said.  African Governments also needed to recognize the identity of indigenous peoples, provide education in native tongues and provide access to ancestral land.

Being small and vulnerable, large segments of the indigenous population of Africa seemed to be invisible in the United Nations system and in Government policies, another member of the Forum said.  She called upon the States and international agencies to pay special attention to those groups.

“If the mysterious world of the United Nations is relatively new to indigenous peoples of Africa, we should also note that the concept of indigenous peoples is still quite novel for the majority of Governments in the region”, another participant of the debate added.  As the background note prepared by the secretariat noted, “few African States recognize the existence of indigenous peoples in their States”.  In that context, work in the region should be defined in the areas of building capacity and engaging with Governments, opening up spaces for dialogue on indigenous issues.  Engagement with Governments should not rest at the conceptual level, but lead to changes in policy and practice.  For example, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, jointly with the International Labour Organization (ILO), was assisting the Government in the Congo with the drafting of a law on indigenous peoples.  Also, the broadest possible cooperation of international agencies in the area was needed in order to promote the two goals mentioned above.

Among other projects mentioned today was the ILO study of the Baka communities in Cameroon, in order to assess their perception of poverty and reflect on how to make the Millennium Development Goals relevant to their needs.  Currently, none of the Millennium Development Goals projects covered the Baka and they felt that no action was taken on their behalf to eliminate hunger.  Paradoxically, with the implementation of some Millennium Development Goals programmes, such as road construction and building of settlements, the situation of that people could actually become worse, since their access to forests would be further restricted.  As the communities’ interaction with external authorities increased, so did their sense of powerlessness.  The lesson that the ILO was drawing from the study was that it was necessary to increase engagement with Governments, indigenous partners, United Nations agencies and other actors on the ground, to establish partnerships for a rights-based approach to the Millennium Development Goals, with a real impact on the communities.

A representative of an African civic organization working on behalf of the Pygmy and Batwa peoples said that, in all his travels Africa, he had been most shocked by the situation of Pygmies in the Great Lakes region.  They were routinely forced into slavery.  Worse, entire pygmy families could be “inherited” or transferred along with land when their “masters” died.

Pygmy women were particularly vulnerable to sexual predation, exploitation and violence, he added.  Speaking out about the situation in his own country, Rwanda, he denounced the Government’s common practice of denying indigenous Batwa people the right to even identify themselves as Rwandans.  All the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes -- who were often called “the unapproachable people” by some -- should receive the utmost attention from the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations to ensure that their human rights were not abused.

Another speaker pointed out that the fears about the claims of indigenous peoples and their rights to land were unsubstantiated.  Their struggle was not directed at breaking up States’ national unity, having exceptions made or at obtaining special privileges.  It amounted to the recognition of their collective rights, including the right to resources and property.  The solution was for Africa to return to the respect for its traditions and create partnerships, with respect for everyone’s rights.

While commending the work of several international bodies, including the ILO, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a speaker asked what all the other agencies were doing for the indigenous peoples of the continent.  Several speakers lamented the absence of representatives from African Governments.

Among the recommendations presented today, was elaboration of specific programmes to address indigenous peoples’ needs, as well as appointment of international mediators for resolution of land and resource issues, efforts to return displaced people, participatory projects to stop desertification and deforestation, and partnerships with the use of indigenous knowledge and wisdom.

Dialogue with Agencies, Governments

The Permanent Forum also continued its dialogue with indigenous peoples, international agencies and Governments today, with more than 20 speakers addressing such issues as participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making fields, and promotion of their human rights.  Capacity-building, awareness-raising, policy development, norm-building, and the critical necessity of culturally appropriate programmes, were also among the topics covered.

The Forum also heard an urgent call from an indigenous Native American collective to press Governments to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic in their communities.  Another speaker urged the panel to back a recent proposal advocating the submission of a resolution calling for a representative of indigenous peoples to participate as a permanent observer in the General Assembly’s work.

A representative of Nepal’s indigenous groups said he was addressing the Forum on what perhaps was the happiest day of his life, when, just hours before, his country’s newly reinstated Parliament had voted to dramatically reduce the powers of the King and, among other things, remove his sole authority over the nation’s armed forces.  The Parliament’s proclamation also called for Nepal -- officially a Hindu nation -- to become a secular State.  While these historic changes were most welcome, the speaker said there was still a long way to go to promote the rights of Nepal’s indigenous peoples, and called on Governments, United Nations agencies, and the Forum itself to continue to provide support.

Today’s special guest, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum, a Mayan leader from Guatemala, said while the results of the First International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People were not very visible, the launching of the Second Decade presented a new opportunity.  She drew attention to the terrible reality facing indigenous peoples, whose rights continued to be denied, even though organizations like the United Nations had been spotlighting their plight for over 25 years.

And while the international community had supported a number of valuable initiatives, nowhere visible was a comprehensive strategy for indigenous peoples’ advancement or for the protection and promotion of their fundamental rights, she said.  Increased cooperation was needed if the Second Decade was to be truly effective.  It might be easier to get to the root of many lingering issues if Governments and intergovernmental agencies drew on the spirituality and great leadership capabilities indigenous peoples themselves could contribute.

Erica-Irene Daes, Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples and Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources for the Geneva-based Subcommission on Human Rights, provided another highlight, updating the Forum on the outcome of the Expert Seminar on Indigenous Peoples Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources and on their Relationship to Land, which had taken place in January this year.

Responding to the concerns that New Zealand, Australia and the United States expressed in connection with the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples (see Press Release HR/4891 of 17 May), she agreed that the draft was not perfect.  However, she said the text contained a number of useful and important provisions, which could contribute to the rights of indigenous peoples, their reconciliation with States where they lived and to the creation of stability in those countries.

Indigenous peoples were the victims of discriminatory treatment in many countries.  The principles of “self-determination”, and the terms “permanent sovereignty” and “territories” had been duly analysed by many Government experts, international lawyers and a number of domestic supreme courts.  She appealed to those who might have certain reservations about the use of those terms in the draft declaration, to study decisions handed down by their own domestic courts, the recommendations of United Nations treaty bodies and relevant rules of international and international customary law.

For instance, the concept of “permanent sovereignty” had surfaced over 40 years ago in General Assembly resolution 1803 (XVII), by which the Assembly had declared that “peoples and nations” had a right to permanent sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources and that violation of that right was contrary to the spirit and principles of the Charter.  The concept had become a general principle of international law when it was included in article 1 of both International Covenants on Human Rights, she added.

The participants of the Experts’ Seminar had accepted that the meaning of the concept “sovereignty” in relation to the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources could be generally stated as legal governmental control and management authority over natural resources, particularly as an aspect of the exercise of the right to self-determination.  The use of that concept in relation to indigenous peoples did not place them on the same level as States or placed them in conflict with State Sovereignty.

Regarding the term “territories”, the Seminar had clarified that it should not be confused with the concept of “territorial integrity” in international law and did not imply separation from the territory of the State as a whole.  In the draft declaration, the term was used as it was used in the ILO Convention 1989/169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, to convey some notion of the totality of indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land, its resources and characteristics.  That was a special and comprehensive kind of relationship that was historical, cultural, spiritual and collective, she added.

On another issue that emerged during yesterday’s dialogue with Governments, a representative of the First Nations Assembly updated the Forum on the status of an agreement reached last November between Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial levels of Government, and Canada’s aboriginal leadership to renew efforts to close the gap between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.  When Canada’s budget was subsequently released, it had not listed any of the funds the Government had promised would be targeted to those concerns.

And while the budget did note the allocation of some $9 billion for various indigenous matters, that sum was to be spread among 1.3 million indigenous people.  That came to just $6,000 per person, as compared to more than $15,000 for non-indigenous Canadians.  Canada’s statement yesterday had been troubling, he said, adding that there was an urgent need for the Canadian Government to recognize first nation jurisdiction over traditional land and land rights.  That Government should also commit itself to capacity-building, to help enhance data collection and monitoring of its efforts to implement plans and policies for indigenous peoples.

The representative of the Secretariat of the United Nations Forum on Forests informed the panel about the latest resolution that the Forum had approved and forwarded to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for adoption, which specifically referenced forest-dependent local communities and indigenous peoples.  The text was a testimony to the importance Member States attached to indigenous issues, as well as their contributions and indispensable role in all societies.  It also reflected a clear recognition of ongoing trends that included growing empowerment of those populations and strengthening of their rights to own and use forests in fighting poverty and improving their quality of lives.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.