Without immediate action by States, COVID-19 will leave indigenous peoples behind in newly invigorated efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the Geneva-based human rights expert charged with promoting constructive agreements between traditional communities and Governments told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today.
“Indigenous peoples have been largely neglected in contingency measures” and included late — if at all — in national responses to the pandemic, Francisco Calí Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said in his inaugural address to the Forum since assuming his mandate in May 2020. The early inclusion of indigenous peoples and their institutions in contingency plans is crucial for ensuring their needs are considered in national recovery policies.
To be sure, he said indigenous peoples have been especially vulnerable to COVID-19, given their inadequate access to clean air, water and health care, and incidence of other health and respiratory conditions. His first thematic report — on the impact of coronavirus disease on the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples — includes 150 submissions from indigenous peoples, civil society groups, national institutions, academics and other experts.
Published in October 2020, he said the report found that agribusiness and extractive companies continued to operate on traditional lands during the pandemic, despite nationwide lockdowns. Recognition of indigenous peoples’ land rights is a prerequisite for sustainably managing limited planetary resources. Otherwise, “traditional livelihoods and cultures risk becoming extinct”.
He went on to stress that restrictions on free expression and assembly, along with land evictions and loss of livelihoods, have pushed indigenous communities into extreme poverty, especially those living in voluntary isolation. His second report, presented in September 2020, covers the situation of indigenous peoples in Asia, addressing issues related to self-determination, self-governance, climate change and the massive displacement of indigenous peoples around the continent.
Mr. Calí Tzay was joined by Laila Vars, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Pablo Mis, Chair of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples in a broad discussion on the priority theme: “Peace, justice and strong institutions: the role of indigenous peoples in implementing Sustainable Development Goal 16.”
Along similar lines, Ms. Vars said the “differentiated and disproportionate” impact of virus on indigenous peoples was highlighted in the Expert Mechanism’s four regional meetings, held virtually, in 2020. Since November 2020, two seminars were organized: one on the rights of the indigenous child, in November 2020, and another on the right to self-determination, held in February 2021.
The first seminar, held in collaboration with the University of Greenland, informed the Expert Mechanism’s study on the individual and collective rights of indigenous children, she continued. The study calls for a human rights-based approach, as outlined in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and incorporates the principle of “best interest of the child”.
She said the report on self-determination, to be published this summer, explores the history of self-determination, including in the decolonization context. It outlines a legal framework in which indigenous peoples can express this right, analysing regional differences in the interpretation of this right and the false dichotomy between internal and external self-determination.
She said the Expert Mechanism will prepare a follow-up study to its land rights study in 2022, reporting also that the Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has developed e-learning tool on indigenous peoples rights.
Rounding out the presentations, Mr. Mis said the Voluntary Fund was established in 1985, when the voices of indigenous peoples at the United Nations were “very hushed”. Its mandate has since been expanded nine times, and the Fund itself has supported the participation of more than 3,000 representatives in United Nations human rights mechanisms.
Since 2020, he said it has expanded its mandate to support their participation in the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights and in climate change processes. “We have come a long way,” he acknowledged, with the development of recommendations for the fulfilment of their rights seen as the fruit of such hard-fought efforts.
In addition, he said the Fund allocates resources to increase the effectiveness of indigenous peoples’ contributions to United Nations processes, regularly organizing human rights training sessions in Geneva and New York on the margins of Expert Mechanism and Forum meetings. While it has disbursed $523,175 to support 152 indigenous representatives in United Nations meetings, only a few of the grantees were able to travel to New York in 2020, due to the pandemic.
He recommended allocating $141,000 for travel related purposes, broken down as follows: 15 grants to support indigenous peoples’ participation in the Human Rights Council, including sessions of the treaty bodies; 15 grants for them to participate in the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights; and several other grants to support indigenous peoples’ participation in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
In the ensuing dialogue, indigenous peoples, Forum members and Government observers explored related issues, with Irma Pineda Santiago, Forum member from Mexico, recommending that States implement International Labour Organization Convention (ILO) No. 169 and adhere to the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in all public policies.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Forum member from Chad, pointed out that COVID-19 has led to human rights abuses against young girls in East Africa, who became pregnant during the pandemic. Border closings also created natural resource conflicts between communities. She drew attention to a conflict over land rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more broadly in the Sahel region, urging the Fund to help indigenous peoples who lack electricity to gain access to the Internet.
Hannah McGlade, Forum member from Australia, described the country’s long history of colonization and forced removal of indigenous children from their communities, which amounts to “cultural genocide”. Citing a law that would transfer the legal right for home care to Aboriginal people, she said: “We are calling for best practice in this law,” also pointing to the “Raise the Age” campaign to reform laws allowing children as young as 10 to be found criminally responsible and incarcerated.
Aleksei Tsykarev, Forum member from the Russian Federation, asked the Special Rapporteur about potential areas for cooperation with the body during the International Decade for Indigenous Languages. He asked the Expert Mechanism Chair about cooperation related to country cases, and the Voluntary Fund Chair about other possibilities for enhancing indigenous peoples’ participation in United Nations processes.
Among the indigenous organizations to take the floor was the speaker from the International Indian Treaty Council, who underscored the importance of recognizing indigenous laws governing sacred items. She asked the Special Rapporteur whether he would produce a follow-up study on COVID-19 and when to expect his highly anticipated report on water.
The speaker from the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean highlighted the priority need to vaccinate indigenous peoples against COVID-19, respecting their right to free, prior and informed consent, and to cultural recognition.
The speaker from the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact meanwhile noted that while three webinars were held with the Special Rapporteur in 2020, the human rights condition for peoples in Asia has not improved. The militarization of indigenous peoples’ territory has increased during the pandemic, she said, citing events in Myanmar, a Marriott Hotel project in the Chittagong Hills area of Bangladesh and the “Build, Build, Build” campaign in the Philippines.
The speaker from the Sami Council said the implementation of three important decisions has not proceeded as expected: a Supreme Court ruling in Sweden; a decision by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination related to a mining project in Sweden; and a decision by the Human Rights Council on the Sami parliament’s electoral role in Finland.
Adriano Karipuna, addressing the Forum on behalf of his people, said indigenous lands in Brazil are being encroached upon by the Government. “Our rights have been violated,” he insisted, and leaders of his people have died in increasing numbers. Highlighting the importance of demarcation, titling and the protection of indigenous lands, he denounced Brazil for its non-compliance with constitutional laws on the rights to life and land. He urged the Forum, Expert Mechanism and Special Rapporteur to urge Brazil to undertake structural reforms that promote demarcation, protection and oversight of indigenous lands, in line with article 232 of the Constitution.
A speaker from Human Rights Watch, representing indigenous peoples in Venezuela, drew attention to the humanitarian crisis in that country, as well as abuses by security forces and organized criminal gangs. “Our peoples have been displaced from their national territory,” he said, and suffered inhumane treatment. “They deserve free, prior and informed consent so they can live out their lives in accordance with their traditions.” He called on Venezuela to urgently vaccinate indigenous people “to ensure our very survival”.
The speaker from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission drew attention to a ministerial working group report on the right to self-determination, emphasizing the importance of developing a national action plan that would encourage the Government and the Maori people to co-design a strategy for securing the relational, spiritual and holistic well-being of her people.
Representatives of Governments also participated as observers in the dialogue, with the representative of Denmark, on behalf of the Nordic countries, asking panellists about the design of precautionary measures so States can respect indigenous traditions and cultures, and facilitate positive relationships with museums.
An observer for the European Union said response to COVID-19 must respect the rights of indigenous peoples to the highest attainable physical and mental health, prioritizing their leadership in recovery instruments and policies. Expressing concern that indigenous human rights defenders have experienced an unacceptable uptick in attacks, he asked about ways to ensure that their rights are respected during the pandemic.
The representative of Chile drew attention to a bill passed in December 2020 that ensures indigenous groups will participate in the upcoming constitutional assembly. The measure reserves 17 seats for indigenous representatives in meetings to draft a new constitution.
The representative of Canada underscored her country’s commitment to working with First Nations, Inuit and other communities in devising solutions based on indigenous languages. She also expressed Canada’s commitment to advance meaningful reconciliation, based on affirmation of rights, respect and partnership.
The representative of Ukraine described the suffering of Crimean Tatars over the Russian Federation occupation of Crimea. Recalling the deportation of Tatars in 1944, she stressed that the Tatar representative body, the Majlis, is still banned, despite a decision by the International Court of Justice in 2017. She also cited a Russian decree depriving Ukrainians of their right to own land, stressing that Russian “neo-colonization aims to change the demography”.
The representative of Guatemala pressed the United Nations to do more to support the rights of indigenous peoples and the Expert Mechanism in particular to keep communication channels open in ways that allow for cooperation on various studies.
The representative of Australia, recalling that indigenous Australians experience high rates of contact with the justice system, said the Government is committed to a process of “local truth telling”, informed by the principle of “do no harm”. He pointed to a project in the Northern Territory aimed at supporting indigenous men, stressing that the time has come for an honest conversation about the factors driving indigenous Australians into incarceration.
The representative of Brazil said his country is one of only 23 that has verified ILO Convention No. 169. Brazil is working with indigenous peoples to ensure access to health care, vaccines and medical equipment, while respecting traditional knowledge. It is also taking action to prevent the invasion and degradation of indigenous lands, he said, noting 60 per cent of indigenous peoples are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Friday, 23 April, to continue its work.