The Indigenous World 2009: Editorial

The Indigenous World 2009: Editorial

In 2008, IWGIA celebrated its 40th anniversary. Looking back over the past 40 years, we believe that we have been able to contribute to advancing the rights of indigenous peoples and improving their situation, not least by documenting events and raising awareness of indigenous issues in different fora. Yet we are constantly reminded, by the contributions to The Indigenous World, that we still face many challenges.1

A number of positive developments have taken place over the last 40 years, many of them documented in The Indigenous World, but, unfortunately, the vast majority of articles in our yearbook continue to report on gross abuses of human rights across the world and we are still witnessing the intimidation, disappearance and murder of indigenous representatives and advocates of indigenous rights. The Indigenous World 2009, for example, tells of the continued disappearance of James Balao, indigenous activist of Kankana’ey and Ibaloi descent, in the Philippines.

But let us first look at some of the more positive developments. In Africa, 2008 saw a gradual recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in some countries. In Burundi, for example, the Batwa celebrated the international day of indigenous peoples with a workshop on their situation. The workshop was inaugurated by the Minister for National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender. A survey on the land situation of the Batwa was completed in November. While the overall human rights situation in Burundi, and particularly that of the Batwa, is still precarious, this does show an opportunity for indigenous issues to be taken seriously. Burundi also demonstrated its increased focus on the Batwa population by stating, during its presentation at the 3rd session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva in December 2008 that: “…the Constitution grants the Batwa ethnic group three seats in the National Assembly, as well as in the Senate, and a vast governmental programme, supported by NGOs and the churches, is under way to effectively integrate the Batwa into Burundian society.”2 In Cameroon, a draft law on marginal populations is favourable to the indigenous peoples of the country and touches upon such sensitive issues as land ownership, culture and social rights. The government has also officially undertaken to celebrate the Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples for the first time, and was represented at the celebrations by its Minister of Social Affairs.

In Japan, indigenous peoples finally gained acknowledgement when the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for the recognition of the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan. Even though many challenges still remain (see article, this volume), this can be seen as a logical consequence of Japan’s vote in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. One would expect many other countries to follow suit but, unfortunately, Asia and Africa still remain continents where indigenous peoples are fighting to be recognized as distinct peoples, despite most of their countries voting in favour of the UNDRIP. In fact, only two countries in Asia, besides Japan, officially recognise indigenous peoples within their boundaries, namely the Philippines and Taiwan.3

Whereas some countries are finally recognising their indigenous peoples, others have taken steps to come to terms with their colonialist past. On February 13, Australia, under its new government, gave the long awaited apology for past atrocities and injustices to its Aboriginal people. This is an important step in Australia’s history as it opens the path for further moves towards reconciliation. In Paraguay, the newly elected government has begun to take some positive steps to respond to indigenous peoples’ land claims, although much more still needs to be done to secure indigenous peoples’ rights in the country. During a public hearing on “Indigenous Peoples and Dictatorship”, organised by the Truth and Justice Commission (CVJ) and the Coordinating Body of Human Rights in Paraguay, almost 50 witness statements were heard from different indigenous peoples, reporting on the serious human rights violations, including genocide, murders, forced labour, etc, committed over more than 60 years.4 As both articles on these countries stress, only time will tell as to whether their governments build on the experiences of (and reconciliation with) the past and have serious intentions of translating these into concrete actions and the implementation of indigenous rights.

Despite the good news, it is still shocking to read about the serious human rights abuses indigenous peoples are experiencing all over the world. Every year, the article on India in The Indigenous World reports on gross violations of the human rights of indigenous peoples (or so-called scheduled tribes) in the country. This year, the article also tells us of the killings of innocent men, women and children, victims of the security forces and opposition armed groups, suffering extensively from internal armed conflicts. In addition, the government continues to forcibly displace tribals from their land without providing them with any alternative plots to settle on and survive. Displacement happens in the name of development, or within the broader sphere of forest protection and management, but it can also be conflict-induced.

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh, Bengali settlers, with support from the military and police force, continue to conduct large-scale attacks on indigenous Jumma villages in order to evict them from their traditional lands. The CHT are recognised as a “tribal inhabited” region, with certain rights to self-governance in the 1997 Peace Accord, signed by the government of Bangladesh and the indigenous political movement, Parbattya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) after two decades of civil war and years of peace talks. Unfortunately, the failure to fully implement all provisions of the Peace Accord means that the region remains heavily militarized and the influx of settlers continues, allegedly under the active patronization of the civil-military and political bureaucracy. Indigenous peoples in the CHT thus continue to be severely marginalized, dispossessed and subjected to serious human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, rape, torture, etc. Human rights defenders and indigenous activists in the CHT are facing particular difficulties, with several being targeted for arrest and questioning.5 In this context, the re-establishment of the international Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission in June 2008 was undoubtedly a much needed and timely initiative to promote respect for human rights, democracy, participatory development and the peaceful resolution of issues related to land rights in the CHT.

Pastoralists in many African countries are still confronted by a generally negative attitude and discrimination from the mainstream population and African governments. In Burkina Faso, for example, pastoralist Peul are killed simply because of their ethnic belonging and so-called “Peul hunts” (referring to manhunts) are becoming more common. Several massacres of Peul took place in 2008, the victims being both men, women and children. The state is turning its back on the matter, and refusing to recognise the ethnic nature of the problem. Kill-ings of pastoralist Peul by the sedentary population are also taking place with impunity in Niger. Additionally, the civilian pastoralist Tu-areg population is suffering from impoverishment and insecurity due to a conflict between the state and a Tuareg rebellion in northern Niger. In Tanzania, evictions of pastoralists continued in 2008. Pastoralists are removed from their lands to make space for wheat cultivation, or in order to lease the land to private investors. The evicted Maasai, Bara-baig and Akiye are not compensated for the loss of their grazing lands, nor are they given other areas where they can graze their cattle, and many are consequently now completely destitute. The forceful evictions take place in a context of overall anti-pastoralist government policies in which the permanent settlement of nomadic pastoralists is emphasized. Conflicts over land and other natural resources are increasing at an alarming rate in Tanzania and an increasing number of people are being killed for this reason. The serious human rights violations that took place in relation to earlier evictions have still not been addressed and the findings of a Commission of Inquiry have not been released. Unfortunately, IWGIA has already received news of further evictions of pastoralists in 2009.6

Another case of forced displacement is described in the article on Israel. Many Palestinian Bedouin still resist the Israeli government’s urbanization programme, a programme to resettle the Bedouin into semi-urban towns, making them completely dependent upon integration into the wider Israeli economy for their livelihood. Those Bedouin who can afford it prefer to live in unrecognised villages that are denied any kind of service and where all forms of houses, except for tents, are illegal. During the past two years, the demolition of houses built by the Palestinian Bedouin in those villages by the paramilitary “Green Patrol” unit has escalated. In addition, during such actions, all their belongings are confiscated, including school books, medicine, food, etc. The situation of the Palestinian Bedouin in Israel has further worsened against the backdrop of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In Peru, the neoliberal policies of President Alan García have led to strong protests from the indigenous movement, which organised a protest action on the International Day of Indigenous Peoples (9 August). The peaceful demonstration involved thousands of indigenous people from different regions of the Amazon and was well supported by the public. Peru’s attitude is a good example of the ever-increasing pressure from oil, gas, mining and other companies on indigenous lands and the ruthlessness with which some governments support the interests of these companies. Alan García’s regime has become aggressive towards social organisations and the government’s intolerance has been expressed in an increasing number of arbitrary detentions and police abuses, threats to freedom of expression and association, monitoring and indictment of environmental leaders and the use of violence against civilians. Similarly, Bolivia experienced a particularly violent year in 2008. Here, however, the aggressive behaviour comes from the opposition (dominated by the business sector), which embarked on a violent and racist campaign against indigenous peoples, including assaults and humiliations of indigenous individuals, along with the seizure and serious mistreatment of a journalist and camera-man who tried to document the situation of the Guaraní, who live in a kind of modern-day slavery on large estates in the area of Alto Parapetí. In September, a peaceful demonstration in Pando of indigenous community members and peasant farmers against the violence of the opposition, ended in a massacre, leaving 20 people dead and many wounded, including children. The president announced a state of emergency and the government condemned the violence.

In the context of the reports compiled in The Indigenous World, one can but hope that, on an international level, the newly-established Univer-sal Periodic Review (UPR) working group under the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) will seriously consider the human rights records of the countries reviewed and that states will not shy away from asking critical questions and making strong recommendations. Indigenous rights issues need to be included more consistently in re-views of states’ human rights performance and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples must be seen as a framework document for these reviews. Human rights abuses as described above must be condemned, and indigenous peoples should not become the victims of diplomacy or bilateral and multilateral interests.

IWGIA particularly welcomes the establishment of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples under the Human Rights Council. The Expert Mechanism’s mandate provides unprecedented opportunities for UN member states and indigenous peoples to work together to operationalise the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and mainstream indigenous peoples’ rights within the framework of the Human Rights Council. This will only be possible, however, if there is political will on the part of the states themselves to protect indigenous rights and cooperate with indigenous peoples.

With the UNDRIP as part of its normative framework, the whole UN Human Rights system, but particularly the three existing mechanisms dealing with indigenous peoples’ rights, namely the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, will have new opportunities to advance the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples’ rights.

Article 42 of the UNDRIP establishes an obligation for all relevant UN bodies and specialised agencies to promote respect for and full application of the provisions of the UNDRIP. Unfortunately, a lack of will on the part of states to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was again demonstrated during the 14th Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Poznan, Poland, in December 2008 when Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States wanted to delete all reference to the Declaration from the final COP document and use the term “indigenous people” without an “s” instead of “indigenous peoples”. With this small change, they managed to remove the implicit reference to international law on all peoples’ right to self-determination, and not least to indigenous peoples’ collective rights as provided for in international human rights law, and further reinforced by the UNDRIP. Canada further claimed that the UN Declaration had nothing whatsoever to do with climate change. Issues such as the eviction of indigenous peoples from their lands due to the expansion of biofuel plantations prove the contrary – climate change has serious impacts on indigenous peoples’ human rights situation. This was also recognised by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) when it decided to consider the issue of human rights and climate change at its tenth session (March 2009).7 The report produced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights8 recognises indigenous peoples’ special vulnerability with regard to the effects of climate change on their lands, territories and resources, and the consequences of the climate change mitigation measures which violate their rights when, for example, biofuel plantations and large hydroelectric dams are approved without their involvement and when their free, prior and informed consent is not obtained for activities on their land. Another great area of concern is the move towards conserving large tracts of tropical and sub-tropical forest in the name of climate change, i.e. as a carbon sink, thus limiting the need for emissions reductions. These conservation plans are known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programmes and, throughout 2008, indigenous peoples fought fiercely for these programmes to be designed in such a way that their right to control and manage their traditional forest territories, and to participate in any important decision-making affecting them, was recognized and respected. As the example from Indonesia shows, it is yet another uphill struggle – in the context of REDD programmes too, the rights provided for in the UN Declaration are not being implemented.

Unfortunately, many states still consider the UNDRIP to be a nonbinding instrument, thereby denying it normative force. However, the declaration is deeply grounded in the authority of the United Nations Charter, as it has been adopted by a resolution of the General Assembly. It also has strong legitimate powers:

"The Declaration is legitimate in three senses: it is a result of procedurally legitimate processes; its content is substantively fair and improves the coherence and determinacy of indigenous peoples’ rights; and, finally, there has been substantial engagement with the Declaration.9"

Additionally, the Declaration is being increasingly invoked in judicial decisions, such as in Belize where Maya were returned land following a decision of the Chief Justice. His decision referred to the UN Declaration, which affirms that indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they traditionally owned, occupied, used or acquired. In Suriname, there was a similar case whereby the Saramaka peoples filed a case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Again, a decision was passed in favour of the Saramaka people and the Declaration was invoked to justify this. Most certainly, the UNDRIP now forms a part of universal human rights law.

The UNDRIP and its implementation was also the main focus of Prof James Anaya’s 1st report to the UN Human Rights Council as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people. In this important report, Prof. James Anaya provided an account of the different measures that states, international bodies, civil society and indigenous peoples themselves can take in order to contribute to the effective implementation of the human rights standards contained in the Declaration and other relevant international human rights instruments.

The year 2009 began, at least, with one positive development: Bolivia finally approved its new constitution in a referendum on 25 January 2009, granting many rights and self-determination to the indigenous peoples of the country. Let us hope that we will be able to report on more positive news by the end of the year.



Kathrin Wessendorf 



Lola García-Alix



April 2009


This article is part of the 23rd edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2009 in full here




1 See also: ’IWGIA 40 years on’, Indigenous Affairs 3-4 / 2008. Copenhagen: IWGIA; Dahl, Jens. 2009: IWGIA – a history. Copenhagen: IWGIA.

2 Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, Burundi. A/HRC/10/71, 8 January 2009.

3 See also: Erni, Christian (ed). 2008. The Concept of Indigenous Peoples in Asia. A Resource Book. Thailand: IWGIA and AIPP.

4 On genocide in Paraguay see also: Parellada, Alejandro and María de Lourdes Beldi de Alcántara (eds.). 2008: Los Aché del Paraguay: Discusión de un Genocidio. Buenos Aires: IWGIA.

5 See also documents related to Bangladesh’s review under the HRC UPR:

6 See IWGIA’s Urgent Alert of 27 February 2009:

7 Resolution 7/23. Human rights and climate change. Adopted on 28 March 2008

8 Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the relationship between climate change and human rights. A/HRC/10/61. 15 January 2009.

9 Charters, Claire. 2009: The Legitimacy of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in: Charters, Claire and Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Making the Declaration Work. The Significance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Copenhagen, IWGIA. (Forthcoming)

Tags: Global governance, IWGIA Report



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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