Indigenous Peoples Increasingly Criminalized, Harassed when Defending Rights, Land, Speakers Tell Permanent Forum, Urging Greater Access to Justice System

Indigenous peoples face a worrying escalation in their criminalization and harassment, especially when defending and exercising rights to their territories and natural resources, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard today as it continued its third day of discussions.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, briefed the Forum, spotlighting the obstacles faced by indigenous peoples when trying to access the justice system.  Lack of interpretation during hearings for those who only speak their mother tongue continues to be only one of many hindrances to justice and is directly linked to impunity in cases including violence and discrimination, she said.

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz stressed the need for a comprehensive review of national laws and called on non-State actors to continue their work towards securing indigenous rights.  Private companies must exert due diligence in all operations and international donors must require human rights protections for indigenous peoples in all the projects they support.  The maintenance of indigenous peoples’ own customary legal institutions is an essential aspect of their right to self-determination.  

Noting her country visits to Guatemala and Ecuador, she called on Governments in Africa and Asia to consider extending an invitation to their countries.  Spotlighting her recent visit to Timor-Leste, her first official mission in an Asian country, she commended the way indigenous practices have translated into important gains in environmental protection and biodiversity.  More focus is needed to ensure customary justice practices comply with human rights standards.  Turning to the observance of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, she said that the only way to protect indigenous mother tongues is by ensuring the well-being of the indigenous peoples.

The Forum also heard from Erika Yamada, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Claire Charters, Chair of the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Ms. Yamada said the it is not only important to be heard in the processes that affect the indigenous community, but also to have influence over the outcomes of such mechanisms.  States must support indigenous communities in their work to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including through technical support.  Noting the Mechanism’s support to the Governments in New Zealand, Finland and Mexico, she said her office has received additional requests regarding assistance in drafting laws and repatriating sacred properties.  Many of the requests come from indigenous peoples, she said, also noting the Mechanism’s work with promoting the rights of indigenous women.

Ms. Charters said that given the financial constraints facing many indigenous peoples it is questionable whether advances would have been possible without the support of the Voluntary Fund.  The Fund supports the participation of representatives of indigenous peoples in the Forum; this year it had provided grants for 45 representatives to attend.  The Fund offers capacity-building training to representatives of indigenous peoples and seeks to strengthen its partnership with States, increasingly counting on them as vital partners in advancing the rights of indigenous peoples.  The Board is also exploring extending its mandate to follow-up on the implementation of various human rights recommendations. 

Les Malezer, Permanent Forum member from Australia, said the Special Rapporteur has a vital role in promoting the rights of indigenous peoples.  The Expert Mechanism is key to engaging with States on behalf of indigenous peoples and the Voluntary Fund remains essential for the equal participation of indigenous peoples in international arenas.  He called for strengthening the Forum’s work to secure indigenous peoples’ rights to access their land, resources, and heritage.

In an interactive dialogue, Member States and indigenous peoples’ groups presented their perspectives, with Magdalena Cruz, Minister Counsellor of Spain, expressing support for the work of the Special Rapporteur and human rights mechanisms that enable indigenous human rights defenders to work in safe conditions.  Nanaia Mahuta, Minister for Maori Development and Local Government of New Zealand, said that policy frameworks in her country support indigenous people’s rights and that her Government remains committed to a healthy relationship with indigenous peoples.  Frans Van Der Westhuizen, Minister for Local Government and Rural Development of Botswana, said his country has adopted laws that have significantly improved everyone’s access to employment, housing, and education.

Brazil’s representative said his Government has recently recognized the rights of some 300 indigenous groups and it continues to coordinate with local authorities to investigate threats against indigenous peoples.  Brazil has always supported international mechanisms aimed at protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.  “That does not mean that we will always agree but we continue to be open to dialogue,” he said.  Ecuador’s representative said that Government policies in his country are based on “listening to all voices” to ensure their active participation in State decisions. 

Responding, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz commended the efforts of Spain to provide sanctuary to indigenous human rights defenders and asked other Governments to do the same.  She also highlighted advances in Ecuador’s justice system.  Ms. Yamada stressed the need to support indigenous peoples in Brazil “especially now when we have a current President that makes statements of regression and hate”.  Ms. Charters highlighted the need for increased and ongoing funding, adding that there are many indigenous peoples whose voices remain unheard due to lack of funds or domestic politics.

Freda Huson of Semilla Warunkwa outlined the ways in which her community has been marginalized, noting measures taken by the Canadian Government and a pipeline company that is trespassing on their lands.  “My people depend on our territories for berries, medicine, meat and healing,” she said, adding that they are reoccupying territories in northern British Columbia, including by building a cabin and a healing center for the members of the community.  Anne Denis of the New South Wales Aboriginal Lands Council noted the long journey undertaken by representatives of indigenous communities to “talk for three minutes”.  She highlighted the plight of a contaminated river that her ancestors had protected for many generations, stressing that water is a basic human right.

Susanna Similä of the Finnish Sami Youth Organization said that development in the name of renewable energy is being pushed on their lands even as the Arctic is changing due to climate change.  The Sami are one people living across four States, she said, asking how they could use the mechanisms available to them.  A representative of the Indigenous People’s Organization of Cameroon shared how many pastoralists have been killed in her country, as well as in Ghana, Mali and elsewhere in Africa.  Africa deserves more attention from this Forum and its partners, she stressed.  Valentin Andreitsev of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation said their traditional knowledge has protected biodiversity, calling for constructive dialogue between indigenous peoples and international organizations before they implement projects.  “They must listen to us,” he stressed. 

Responding to the point made by the speaker from Cameroon, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said that she had tried to set up in-country meetings with many African Governments.  “I always write to them for invitations, but they never send one, which is a dilemma,” she stressed.  The protocol of the United Nations stipulates that a special mission can only conduct a country visit at the invitation of the Government.  The “worst countries” do not extend invitations as they do not want to be criticized.  She urged civil society organizations to continue to pressure Governments to allow United Nations experts into affected countries.  Addressing the point made by the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, she said it is essential to push the human rights framework into the conservationist realm.  If indigenous peoples’ rights are not respected than hope for protecting the area’s biodiversity is bleak, she added. 

Briefing the Forum in the afternoon, Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and Head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York (OHCHR), stressed that indigenous peoples’ role implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must be strengthened.  There is still limited recognition of the special relationship indigenous communities have with their lands, he said, expressing concern about the criminalization of those defending their lands.  Noting agrobusiness and hydroelectric projects undertaken without the consent of the indigenous peoples, he said they are also often accused of obstructing development.  Hundreds of environmental defenders, indigenous peoples, community and labour leaders, reporters and bloggers have been killed.  Intimidation is perpetrated by both State and non-State actors, he pointed out, encouraging representatives to report cases to the OHCHR including by emailing the confidential mailbox reprisals@un.org.

Mariam Wallet Mohamed Aboubakrine, Permanent Forum member from Mali, asked what can be done to ensure no reprisals are carried out.  She also raised the issue of the limitations of the Special Rapporteur’s country visits.  Responding, Mr. Gilmour noted that there are no sanctions against countries where there are reprisals against human rights defenders, but bringing attention to those issues can be useful in itself.

Continuing the discussion, the representative of the Russian Federation said that at the federal level, his Government has established a human rights commissioner as well as extra-judicial mechanisms for indigenous peoples.  He encouraged international mechanisms to study all aspects of the situation to prevent abuse.  Ukraine’s representative said that his Government respected the rights of all national minorities in the country.  Highlighting the situation of the Crimean-Tartar people, he said that the temporary occupation of their territories by the Russian Federation had led to abductions, forced disappearances and intimidation of those people.

Aslak Holmberg of the Saami Council said that Reindeer Herder farm, an indigenous-led economic initiative in the north-west Russian Federation, is under threat because the Ministry of Natural Resources auctioned off a hunting area within its territory.  “Indigenous peoples never hunt on these lands to avoid disturbing the reindeer migration routes”, he said, calling on the Russian Government to ensure its protection.  Robert Bertrand of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples said that the Canadian Government uses paternalistic laws to exercise control over who can be recognized as Indian.  “Hundreds of thousands of our people have been cut off from their communities,” he said, with the system forcing them to assimilate.  A representative of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee spotlighted the plight of the Masai and other peoples, who are confronting the loss of their languages, dislocation from ancestral lands, as well as rape and killings.

Remedios Uriana of Madre Inc., leading a delegation of indigenous women from various countries, called on the Permanent Forum to develop mechanisms to implement the recommendations of the previous sessions.  Ronald Suarez Maynas of Consejo Shipibo Konibo Xetebo said that the indigenous people of Peru understood the diversity of the jungle, which is essential in tackling climate change.  The State must recognise their autonomous laws, he said.  “Where are we going to live?” Robert Guimaraes Vasquez of Stitching Forest People’s Programme asked, outlining how extractive industries in Peru are taking away the indigenous people’s right to manage their territories.

Janine Yazzie of the International Indian Treaty Council spotlighted the case of Leonard Peltier, Anishinaabe and Dakota, an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who has been in federal prison since 1976, after a wrongful conviction for the deaths of two United States Federal Bureau of Investigation agents.  This case demonstrates how the United States courts and criminal justice system criminalizes dissent, she said.

Mohamed Azmy Ahmed of the Border Center for Support and Consulting spotlighted the Egyptian Government’s maltreatment of the Nubian people.  Even though the Nubian people are protected by the Constitution, the Government of Egypt has ceased all talks with the community.  Eskender Barilev of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people said Russian Federation armed forces came into his home and conducted an illegal search.  They have arrested many people and have conducted other illegal activities against the Tatar community, he said, stressing that the Russian Government is blatantly ignoring the recommendations of the Indigenous Forum.

Participating in the discussion were representatives of Guatemala, Denmark (also on behalf of Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway), Chile, Bolivia and Indonesia, as well as the European Union.

Permanent Forum members Vice-Chair Tarcila Rivera Zea (Peru), Lourdes Tibán Guala (Ecuador), Jens Dahl (Denmark), Les Malezer (Australia), and Phoolman Chaudhary (Nepal) also participated.

Also taking part were the representatives of Tonatierra, Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, Indigenous Youth Network, Articulacion de Mujeres Indigenas de Paraguay, Indigenous People’s Policy Research and Education Center for Asia, Organization des Nations Autochtones de Guyana, International Council for the Indigenous Peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, American Indian Law Alliance, União dos Povos Indígenas do Vale do Javari, New South Wales Aboriginal Lands Council, Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Organisation Tamaynut, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, Stitching Forest People’s Programme, Fundacion Egdolina Thomas Para La Defensa De Los Derechos De Los Habitantes De La Costa Caribe De Nicaragua, International Native Tradition Interchange, Inc., Nation of Hawai’i, Native Youth Alliance, University of Technology Sydney-Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, Pacific Disability Forum, Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre, Organisasi Pribumi Papua Barat and Rainforest International Foundation, as well as several other indigenous peoples’ organizations.

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