The Marginalized: Bridging the gap

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The UN General Assembly decided to observe August 9 as a special day of the world’s indigenous people.

On Saturday – August 9 – it will be 20 years that some 5,000 indigenous communities comprising over 370 million population and living in more than 90 countries across the world, are marking ‘the International Day of the World Indigenous People’. The UN General Assembly decided to observe August 9 as a special day of the world’s indigenous people through resolution passed on December 23, 1994.

The date marks the day of the first formal meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) — foremost mechanism exclusively dedicated to protect and promote the rights of indigenous people at the UN. The same working group drafted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which was adopted by almost all the countries across the world in 2007. Nepal also voted in its favor.

Every year, the International Day of the World Indigenous People is marked with a special theme. The focus of this year’s international day is, ‘bridging the gap: implementing the rights of indigenous people. (Photos: Dev Kumar Sunuwar)

Every year, the day is marked with a special theme. The focus of this year’s international day is, ‘bridging the gap: implementing the rights of indigenous people.’ The theme aims to highlight the importance of implementing the rights of indigenous people through policies and program both at national and international level.

In the message sent by Secretary General of UN on the occasion of UN special day of world indigenous people, Ban Ki-Moon says, “This year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous People comes at a critical moment as the world endeavors to meet the Millennium Development Goals, forge a new vision for sustainable development and prepare the groundwork for the adoption of a new legal climate agreement– all by 2015.”

He also calls on all partners to join the UN in promoting and protecting their rights and recognize and celebrate the valuable and distinctive identities of indigenous people around the world and work even harder to empower them and support their aspirations.

Soon after the UN declaration, Nepal’s indigenous communities also have been celebrating the day every year by organizing various programs, rallies and procession in Kathmandu as well as in parts of the country, under their umbrella organizations — Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), Nepal Indigenous Women Federation (NIWF), NGO-Federation of Nepal Indigenous Nationalities (NGO-FONIN), Youth Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, Nepal (YFIN) and Nepal Students Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NSFIN).

“This special day has somehow boosted us movement, united us further and connected us with indigenous people from other parts of the world” says Nagendra Kumal, Chairman of NEFIN.

Twenty years ago, when the UN General Assembly declared August 9 as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, like many other parts of the world, indigenous people were hardly known in Nepal. Today, they are not merely recognized legally as a distinct community, but there are many triumphs as well as despairs to share.

Achievement from the observation of the special day

Although, the UN-declared the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People alone could not be the only cause of the upsurge in aspirations of Nepal’s indigenous people, it certainly is a contributing factor. The observation of the special day certainly provided opportunities for indigenous nationalities here to build their base but also to express solidarity with indigenous people across the globe.

Chairperson of Nepal Indigenous Women Federation, Shanti Jirel says, “The day has helped us unite together, know about our status, rights, issues and concerns and, most importantly, form a distinct identity.”

One of the major achievements of two-decade-long journey is the construction of a collective identity for diverse ethnic groups as indigenous nationalities (Adivasi Janajati). They are now recognized by a wider sector of society. Until 1990, the government had denied to recognize and accept the distinct identity of indigenous nationalities. The policy was to assimilate indigenous people into the dominant Hindu hierarchical caste system. It was the 1990 Constitution that for the first time acknowledged the multicultural reality of the country and stated Nepal as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious state.

Another important achievement is getting recognized. The government has identified and recognized 59 ethnic/caste groups as indigenous nationalities through the enactment of the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities Act-2002. According to the Act, “Indigenous refers to those ethnic groups or communities who have their own mother tongue and traditional customs, different cultural identity, different social structure and written or oral history”.

Similarly, the journey also saw a spurt of several NGOs and advocacy groups such as Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), an umbrella organization of organizations representing the 59 indigenous nationalities, Indigenous Women’s Federation (NIWF) an umbrella organization of indigenous women, NGO-Federation of Nepal Indigenous Nationalities (NGO-FONIN), Federation of Nepalese Indigenous Journalists (FoNIJ), Youth Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, Nepal (YFIN) and Nepal Students Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NSFIN).

Landmark steps of UN for the world’s indigenous people

With a view to address concerns of the world’s indigenous people, for the first time, in 1971, the UN made landmark decision, when the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) passed a resolution, authorizing UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (Subsidiary body of ECOSOC), in leadership of the then the Special Rapporteur Jose Martinez Cobo, to carry out study titled, “Problem of discrimination against Indigenous Populations.” The same study till date became a standard reference for their definition and discussions on the subjects of indigenous people within the UN system.

In 1982, the UN then formed the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations as an organ of the UN Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, a body under the UN Commission on Human Rights.

In 1994, the UN decided to observe August 9 every year, as such an International Day of World’s Indigenous People to mark the very first day of a formal meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP). Since the first declaration, world’s indigenous people have been observing the special day organizing different programs. The same working group drafted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which was adopted by almost all the countries (including by Nepal) in 2007.

Following the recommendation of the UN Working Group on Indigenous People, the world body declared 1993 as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People. The International Year of the World’s Indigenous People was observed, but many indigenous people around the world did not seem to notice it. Yet, the UN declared 1995-2004 as the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People with the special theme ‘indigenous people: partnership in action’. Following the completion of the first Indigenous People’s Decade, the UN announced the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (2005-2015) with the special theme of ‘partnership for action and dignity’. As the second decade is ending next year, the UN has summoned the first World Conference on indigenous people convening from 22-23 September 2014 (next month). This conference will make assessment of outcomes of the two decades of marking special days including the first and the second decades of world indigenous people.

In 2000, the UN also established the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as an advisory body to the ECOSOC, with the mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic, and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. The two-week long session of the Forum is held every year in the UN headquarters in New York. Similarly, in 2007, the UN also established the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of indigenous People (EMRIP), to advice Human Rights Council on thematic issues of indigenous, conduct studies and research on the rights of indigenous people as directed by the Council. A week-long session of EMRIP takes place every year in the UN’s secretariat building in Geneva.

Bridging or widening the gap

“If we are to look at the implementation of indigenous people’ rights in true sense, instead of bridging, the gap in Nepal has been widening,” says Dr Krishna Bahadur Bhattachan, sociologists and indigenous people’ rights activist.

According to him, in 2002, the National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act was promulgated which established semi-governmental focal institution mandate to work for the development of indigenous people. The same act for the first time gave recognition to 59 ethnic/caste groups as Adivasi Janajati (indigenous nationalities). But, because of its vague mandate, bound by and depended on the government, the foundation has been facing challenge to address the issues and concerns of indigenous communities.

Nepal is one of the twenty two countries– and the only one in Asia– to have ratified binding international legal instrument, the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal People of the International Labor Organization (ILO C. No. 169) and voted to the non-binding UN General Assembly Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP)- 2007 which include their far-reaching rights. But full and effective implementation of these deals is yet to take place. In 2010, the Ministry of Local Development had prepared a national action plan to implement the ILO C No. 169, which is still awaiting the cabinet’s nod.

The government developed separate program for the development of indigenous nationalities in the Ninth five-year plan (1998-2002). The program, however, was never implemented. The Tenth five-year-plan (2002-2007) aimed at social inclusion and poverty reduction strategy but was partially implemented.

Indigenous People’ right to self-determination, autonomy, self-rule, free, prior and informed consent, their collective rights, right to their land, territories and natural resources remain distant dreams.

Responding the writ filed by indigenous representatives, on April 21, 2013, the Supreme Court issued an order to the government to amend the Constituent Assembly (CA) member election Act and regulations of 2007 in accordance with international legal instruments such as ILO Convention 169 and UNDRIP to ensure indigenous people direct representation in the Constituent Assembly.

The Committee for monitoring UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) had issued two early warning letters on two occasions — March 13 and September 28, 2009 –recommending the government to set up a mechanism within the first Constituent Assembly to ensure indigenous people’ participation in the new constitution writing process.

In 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people raised the issue of Indigenous People participation in the constitution writing process, reiterating the recommendation made in 2009 to provide special mechanisms to ensure the effective participation of indigenous people through their own representative institutions, in the constitution drafting process.

On May 13, this year, the Supreme Court issued a mandamus order to the government to fill the 26 vacant CA seats with representatives of indigenous communities that have not been represented in the CA. But the government has not done anything in these regard. Instead, the government has blocked the process to form a Caucus group in the CA, and the political parties, by imposing whip, have averted CA members from indigenous people from voicing the concerns of their community.

“The ratification of international conventions pertaining to the rights of indigenous people is a welcoming step, but it would be meaningless, unless those commitments are reflected in the country’s constitution, plans, policies and programs of the government,” says Dr Bhattachan.

Former member of the National planning Commission and also indigenous people’s rights activist, Dr Chaitanya Subba says that the Interim Constitution-2007 to some extent recognizes indigenous people’s rights. It guarantees the right to social justice, including the right to participate in the state structure on the basis of the principle of social inclusion. And, the government has made an attempt to address poverty taking special measures including reservations in education and employment for a certain time period. However, these provisions have only become a moral force and their implementation depends very much on the political will of those in power.

Demands of indigenous people

A long history of marginalization, oppression and exclusion from political representation, decision making, economic and educational opportunities, have continuously threatened their identity, and therefore, one of the major demands of indigenous people have been guarantee that they receive fair representation at all level of decision-making and access to resources.

Though a number of positive measures have been planned lately by the government for the economic and social benefits of indigenous nationalities, it needs to put these commitments, including those made to the international community, to practice. Fulfilling of its international commitments would guarantee the rights of indigenous nationalities in the new constitution as enshrined in a number of international legal and human rights instruments, including ILO Convention No. 169 and UNDRIP.

Especially after 1990, one of their major demands has been the redistribution of power. This agenda became one of the main agendas even after the people’s movement of 2006. And, it is going to continue until the Constituent Assembly finalizes the new constitution with restructuring of state on ethnic, language or geography, within the a federal structure.

“Constitution writing process is a crucial moment to address indigenous people’s demand and respond to the many challenges that they face,” says Shanti Kumari Rai, a member of Interim Constitution Draft Committee and Chairperson of Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous People (LAHURNIP), “Let us wait and see whether or not a new constitution guarantees the rights of indigenous people in line with the international legal instruments that Nepal has been party to.”


Sunuwar is freelance journalist
devkumarmail@gmail.com
Published on 2014-08-08 03:07:53
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