IWGIA Senior Advisor Marianne Wiben Jensen reflects on 20+ years of work with the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Africa
After 20 years of being a member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africaof the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), IWGIA senior advisor Marianne Wiben Jensen, reflects on how it all began, what has happened over more than two decades of work and her hopes for the group’s future.
“When it was announced that I was to leave the group, it was nice to feel all the appreciation coming from all the members and everybody, that they had also really appreciated my work … It was very nice to get that opportunity to be part of working from the inside – you know, in the machine room. It was a privilege that I got that opportunity of being a member of a special mechanism of the ACHPR system itself. I felt extremely welcomed and accepted. I never pushed myself into this, I was asked if I could be a part of this, so I also felt needed, and we have always had a great collaboration in the group, also with shifting commissioners and shifting members … I always enjoyed going to all these meetings and in the end, we became like friends because you’re working for many years with very committed and competent people on something that is a joint struggle.”
It's been a long journey since the mid to late 1990s to raise the awareness and support the political advocacy of Indigenous Peoples in Africa; a journey which Marianne has personally seen and been a part of at very crucial and key times.
Getting Indigenous Peoples on the radar
“It all started in 1999 when there was a big conference in Africa organized by IWGIA and PINGOs Forum, our current partner in Tanzania. It was dealing with the situation of Indigenous Peoples in Africa in general. And one of the commissioners [of the ACHPR] was also invited because already at that time some people thought that the African Commission ought to work with this particular human rights issue of Indigenous Peoples because at that point in time it did not work on that issue at all.”
Commissioner Barney Pityana from South Africa, who was also involved in the South African Human Rights Commission, was approached to be a potential ally.
“He was very touched by hearing all the testimonies about how bad the situation is for Indigenous Peoples in Africa and realised this is really a human rights area that needs to be attended to as it’s one of the most vulnerable groups in Africa, and nobody from the African Commission had ever done anything about that. So, he really took it upon himself to deal with this issue.”
Marianne explains that getting this issue into the ACHPR was something that took a while and was a concerted effort among many groups.
Then about a year later, IWGIA received an invitation to participate in an ACHPR session as we have observer status. So, in October 2000, IWGIA (represented by Marianne) participated for the first time in an ACHPR session held in Cotonou, Benin. She met with Commissioner Pityana and other commissioners to further brief them about the dire situation of Indigenous Peoples in Africa and to discuss how the ACHPR could start working on this issue. Advised by Commissioner Pityana, she also made a public statement about the issue at the session to raise more awareness and garner support for the issue.
It was after that, when the various ACHPR members went into their private session to decide on all their resolutions, that it was decided to set up a Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africa. This was not only significant for the advancement of the Indigenous issue, but it was also the first working group the ACHPR created.
Building awareness on Indigenous Peoples
After that, in 2001, IWGIA supported a group of Indigenous people from all regions of Africa to attend the ACHPR session in Tripoli, Libya, to ensure their participation, though they didn’t have observer status.
“You need to have observer status to make a public statement at the commission. So, what we have been doing for many years, which we actually started at that [Tripoli] session, was to lend our voice to one of the Indigenous representatives we helped to participate in the session. So that instead of us speaking, like we did the first time, they could speak under our name.”
The basic message that the group of Indigenous representatives wanted to convey was that there are groups in Africa that self-identify as Indigenous and who suffer from serious human rights violations.
“It’s about specific peoples who have very different cultures, who suffer from particular forms of discrimination and marginalization and who are looked at very negatively: as backward and as people who need to just develop into being like the rest of the African population. It is groups and peoples who suffer so many human rights abuses, who lack access to justice, who are losing their lands and territories and whose cultures, identity and very survival as distinct peoples is threatened. They [the Indigenous representative] conveyed this message because there’s so much lack of knowledge about them.”
The other message, however, was to also push to make sure that the resolution to establish a new ACHPR special mechanism/ Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities was followed up on since at that time only the resolution had been adopted, but the Working Group had not yet been set up.
The Working Group was formalised after the Tripoli session and consisted of two ACHPR commissioners and four experts, one of whom was Marianne, who was nominated as the international expert member.
One other significant thing happened in Tripoli, however.
All ACHPR member States must submit regular periodic reports on the human rights situation in their country, much like the UN Universal Periodic Review process. Before this session, questions concerning Indigenous Peoples or even pastoralists never came up in the ACHPR examination of these reports. But in Tripoli, where Namibia was slated for examination of its periodic report, Commissioner Pityana asked a critical question about how the country deals with its Indigenous population.
“So that was the first time ever that this issue even came up under the examination of State reports. I just remember that that was really great because it was not only the NGOs speaking up about these issues, but it’s actually now at another level. It’s the Commission asking the State party the critical question. And then these questions and responses come into the concluding observations afterwards.”
The first big task
After this important session, the members of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities were officially informed that they had been nominated to be part of the group. Their mandate was – as per ACHPR Resolution 51 – to:
- Examine the concept of Indigenous populations / communities in Africa.
- Study the implications of the African Charter on the well-being of Indigenous communities, especially regarding the rights to: equality (articles 2 and 3), dignity (article 5), protection of all people against domination (article 19), self-determination (article 20), cultural development and identity (article 22).
- Consider appropriate recommendations for the monitoring and protection of the rights of Indigenous communities.
In October 2001 at the next session in The Gambia, where the ACHPR is headquartered, IWGIA supported the participation of an Indigenous delegation again, notably the Indigenous expert members of the Working Group, and the group members began figuring out how to conduct such an in-depth study.
“We just discussed that this is a huge opportunity and we really have to deliver a good product. And just trying to be realistic as we had very few chances of being together – this was before the time of Skype. So we were in this hot place, in almost 40-degree weather and humidity and we didn’t have meeting rooms, so we just had to sit outside of our hotel and work.”
The process included major meetings held in Kenya and South Africa where Indigenous representatives from all over the continent came together to discuss the preliminary findings and validate the research.
“I think people really felt that, yes, now the African Commission is on its way to taking on our issues. So, there was a lot of enthusiasm in contributing to the documents, making sure that their human rights issues were also there and there was a lot of support for this process to go forward.”
The report – Report of the African Commission's Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities
– took nearly two years to produce and submit, involving a lot of communication, consultation, coordination, research and approvals, and it was finally approved and adopted by the ACHPR in 2003. It became a widely-used and referenced report funded by IWGIA that is still used today, not just as one of the key documents on Indigenous Peoples’ human rights in Africa, but also across the world. The report, in fact, continues to be in such high demand that we have had to have a fourth reprinting of it just last year and it is found online on numerous sites. The report is available in English and French, and a summary version of it is available in Portuguese, Arabic and several local and Indigenous languages (Fula, Maa, Kirundi, Tamasheq).
“It was huge to have it adopted because it meant it was adopted by the whole Commission, saying that, yes, this is our framework for the work we’re going to do on Indigenous Peoples … There is one chapter in the report that is particularly important: Possible Criteria for Identifying Indigenous Peoples. This was important in Africa; to understand what the criteria are for saying who is Indigenous and who is not. How do we understand that in Africa? That was the key point.”
In fact, once this report was adopted, shortly thereafter one of the first ever cases of Indigenous Peoples’ rights was taken up by the ACHPR as now they were in a place to receive specific complaints and make rulings on the issue of Indigenous Peoples. And the chapter on identification criteria has really been picked up by various actors and processes.
“It was always part of the whole strategy of not only reaching out to governments, donors, the UN and other high-end systems, but also to the Indigenous Peoples themselves because it is their product really, for them to own it and have it and be able to use it in their struggle as a strong argument in their own cases.”
“I always get all these research reports, policy documents from the World Bank, UN, and others, and when reading through the Africa sections I’m always seeing them quoting the 2003 report as a reference and argument for how they understand and conceptualize the issue of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Africa.”
The Working Group continues
Another significant result of the 2003 ACHPR session where the report was adopted was that it was resolved that the Working Group should continue with a new and expanded mandate, building on the 2003 report.
“It was very exciting because you could really feel the weight change of history somehow. That I got the opportunity to actually be personally a part of it; a very fundamental process in Africa, for the whole continent. And, of course, when you have a document like that, it’s not that you change things on the ground automatically. But it was great to be part of facilitating the process, to make sure that all the actors got together and that this work was done – and also to contribute directly to the report. This was fantastic – to be given an opportunity for contributing to something that would have a very long-lasting influence and importance and that could provide Indigenous Peoples with an entirely new platform.”
And so, the Working Group met regularly, monitored and documented the situation of Indigenous Peoples, held dialogues with States, undertook research and submitted reports and recommendations to the ACHPR; all of which it still does today.
“Working in this group has been great because it has been a true working group. It’s not that you can be a member and just check it off, where people are just talking and talking and positioning themselves, and then you go home and zero happens. This has been the complete opposite. You have people committed to driving an agenda and ready to be concrete, ready to be hard working in between the sessions and to not only be smart talking at the session. So, I think that’s what I enjoy being part of such a forum where the people are actually serious and make things happen.”
The road ahead
As far as the future, there is still a lot of work to do, for the Working Group, the ACHPR and for Marianne and IWGIA.
“The fact that it [the Working Group] is an integrated part of the African Commission’s work and procedures is really the biggest change because I think there’s still a lot to do for achieving real change within governments in Africa. There have been small victories but overall the situation is still very bad – there are still very few African governments that really recognise that they have Indigenous Peoples who are experiencing serious human rights violations. So, I think there’s still a lot of need for the Working Group. And, of course, within the Indigenous movement, amongst the Indigenous organisations themselves, I also see that they have become quite a lot stronger over these 20 years. They do a lot of important lobbying work and they very much use the African Commission procedures and platform in their work.”
“I hope it [the Working Group] can continue to be a very active and strong group. For many years it has been the most active working group within the whole Commission from the very beginning, because it was the first time that they ever made use of that possibility to make a working group. And then because of the funding they got and all our involvement – and not least because of the strong commitment and hard work of the members. You don’t have any other working group that has systematically met before every session and has continuously worked, been able to raise funds for itself and deliver a product. So, I just hope the Working Group can continue that high activity level.”
“It’s been 20 years of long, hard work and just because you’re not part of the Working Group doesn’t mean that our work stops. We shall continue to participate in the ACHPR sessions and to support Indigenous representatives to make good use of the ACHPR platform, so I’ll still be involved, I’m sure.”
Watch the documentary on 20 years of the WGIP here: Fighting for the Forgotten
See all the ACHPR WGIP and IWGIA co-produced reports here
 As per ACHPR Resolution 455, the mandate of the Working Group was expanded in August 2020 and the group name was amended to: Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities and Minorities in Africa.
Photos: All images are credited to IWGIA.