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Russia: Denial of indigenous peoples' rights concerns UN Human Rights Committee

April 14 2015

caption: Shor elder whose house was demolished by mining company (Photo: Nelly Tokmagasheva)
The UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights (ICCPR) recently concluded its 113th Session, adopting, among others, its concluding observations regarding the situation of civil and political rights in the Russian Federation.

In paragraph 24, the Committee expresses its concern at "
insufficient measures being taken to respect and protect the rights of indigenous peoples and to ensure that members of such peoples are recognized as such." The lack of recognition particularly concens the situation of the Izhma Komi or Izvatas, who are denied recognition as indigenous peoples, exluding them from decision-making over their territories, which are ever more devastated by oil exploration and extraction.

It also concerns indigenous peoples in the Far East of Russia and other places, who are frequently penalized for fishing or hunting on their ancestral land, because they are unable to produce documentary proof of their indigenous identity. Such proof is unavailable since Russia abolished the entry from the passports denoting "nationality," leaving indigenous peoples vulnerable to arbitrary denial of their inaliable rights.

'Territory of traditional nature use' still not established

The committee also "
notes with concern that no “territory of traditional nature use” has been established to date under the 2001 Federal Law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU)," pointing to one of the longest standing failures of the Russian authorities to respect and protect indigenous rights, leaving them without guaranteed access to, or control of their ancestral territories, which are ever more controlled by extractive industries and other third parties. The committee also find that "indigenous peoples’ sacred areas are largely unprotected from desecration, contamination and destruction by extractive, development and related activities." The most prominent current case of desecration of indigenous peoples' sacred sites is the destrucion of the Karagay-Nash, a mountain sacred to the Shor people of South Siberia. The mountain was the main place of worship of the indigenous inhabitants of Kazas, who have been displaced by mining activities.

'Consultation with indigenous peoples insufficiently enforced' 

Finally, the commitee notes, that "con
sultation with indigenous peoples on matters of interest to their communities is insufficiently enforced in practice, and that access to effective remedies remains a challenge." In this context it calls on Russia to "ensure that consultations are held with the indigenous communities that might be adversely affected by the State party’s development projects and extractive industries operations with a view to obtaining their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for all proposed project activities," citing the key right to FPIC set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

The session was attended by an unprecedented number of groups from the Russian Federation, presenting their shadow reports denouncing a wide range of human rights violations. It was overshadowed by the Ukraine conflict as well as by Russia's increased pressure on civil society organisations, many of whom have been declared "foreign agents" by the authorities and have subsequently closed down.

Concluding observations of key importance to Russia's indigenous population

In this situation indigenous peoples' rights were in danger of falling by the wayside. The key "List of issues," which by established practice sets the agenda for the session made no explit mention of the situation of indigenous minority peoples. Therefore, indigenous issues were also absent from Russia's written response and rarely brought up during the interactive dialogue, so that it was far from guaranteed that the concluding observations would
adequately adress indigenous rights.

The Committee refrained from invoking the right of Self-Determination, set out in Art. 1 of the ICCPR and instead subsumed indigenous issues under Art. 27 (rights of minorities). This is in keeping with its prior jurisprucence on indigenous issues and reflects what could be a strategic choice by the Committee to avoid a particularly touchy subject. However, it falls short of acknowledging the full extent of indigenous peoples' rights as set out in the UNDRIP. Nonetheless, the Concluding Observations do address some of the most pressing issues affecting indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation today and therefore are of key importance for the future protection and promotion of their rights.