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United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People: “Real progress cannot be measured unless we hear directly from the world’s Indigenous Peoples.”

UN Special Rapporteur: We Must Hear Directly From World’s Indigenous Peoples

Terri Hansen

When Filipino Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Igorot) was appointed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People June 2, 2014, she became the first woman and the first indigenous person from a developing country to hold this three-year position. As such, she brings unique perspectives to the UN’s human rights mandate to assess the condition of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous Peoples worldwide. In 1996, Tauli-Corpuz founded the nongovernmental organization Tebtebba, which has engaged with the U.N. on Indigenous Peoples rights, sustainable development, climate change and biodiversity. She was among those who lobbied for more than 20 years before the U.N. General Assembly finally adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. She was the Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) from 2005 to 2009. Tauli-Corpuz talked about her role as U.N. Special Rapporteur in an exclusive interview with ICTMN.

As the very first Indigenous woman in this unique role, what will be your mandate and priorities?

I am proud to be the first woman – and the first person from a developing country – to hold this position. That brings a different perspective to these issues, and I am convinced that the empowerment of women is crucial to addressing discrimination, racism, and violence. Indigenous women face discrimination based on both race and gender, and are even less likely to hold title to their land than indigenous men. Evidence shows that securing land rights for indigenous women contributes to their livelihoods and the well-being of their families, and even decreases levels of domestic violence. While previous mandate holders have paid special attention to the rights of women and children, they have never been the focus of a thematic report. I plan to change that this year.

In addition, I want to focus my attention on ensuring that Indigenous Peoples’ rights are recognized in the U.N. post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the global climate agreement that will be adopted this December in Paris. The SDGs will set the global development agenda for the next 15 years, so it is vital that Indigenous Peoples are not left behind, especially given that they make up only 5 percent of the global population but account for 15 percent of the world’s poorest people. When it comes to climate change, Indigenous Peoples have suffered some of the worst impacts and can offer some of the most promisingly solutions.

Former U.N. Special Rapporteur James Anaya spent much of his time on the ground, interviewing IPs, investigating urgent situations and compiling recommendations for Nation States, whereas Rodolfo Stavenhagen took more of an academic approach to his station. How do you plan to do things?

I have the utmost respect for both of my predecessors and the work they did to promote the rights of Indigenous Peoples – and both approaches are vital to establishing the mechanisms and safeguards that protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights, such as the UNDRIP, as well as ensuring that new instruments, such as the post-2015 SDGs, do not fall below existing standards. However, real progress cannot be measured unless we hear directly from the world’s Indigenous Peoples. The ability to gauge whether or not these important instruments are actually being implemented requires that I listen to the voices of Indigenous Peoples when I visit their countries or have meetings with them elsewhere. I also have to verify reports of alleged human rights violations I receive so that I have the facts right when I make my communication to the government concerned. I will build upon the work of my predecessors which means I have to monitor and follow up on how their recommendations are being implemented by the governments.

RELATED: Tauli-Corpuz Named UN Special Rapporteur, Replacing James Anaya

Do you make your own schedule vis a vis the countries you visit or will you inherit a schedule from Professor Anaya?

While I may follow up on visits made by Professor Anaya, I do not inherit his schedule. The Special Rapporteur visits countries after being invited by governments. My predecessors visited the U.S., Canada, Nordic countries, Australia, New Zealand and many countries in Latin America. There were very few Asian and African countries visited so I am requesting invitations from several countries in these regions.

What was your biggest concern as chair of UNPFII, and what do you anticipate being the greatest challenge as Special Rapporteur? The most satisfying?

I was the second Chair of the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues and also the longest sitting Chair. I was in this position from 2005 to 2009. It was during my term that the UNDRIP was finally adopted. The activities leading up to this groundbreaking adoption was definitely one of the biggest challenges facing the whole indigenous movement. It took years of campaigning before the U.N. even started to draft the declaration in 1982. When formal negotiations began in 1995, the U.N. told Indigenous Peoples that we were not allowed to speak at the negotiations, only to observe. We walked out, of course, because who could respect a declaration made without the participation of the people whose rights it’s supposed to uphold? The member-states realized that this threatened their credibility and invited us back as participants, so the drafting and negotiations continued with our active and equal participation. There was a real concern that it would never be adopted, or that it would be watered down, but finally in 2007 we were able to achieve this important victory.

 Now, as U.N. Special Rapporteur, I face challenges in monitoring and ensuring that Indigenous Peoples’ rights, enshrined in the Declaration and ILO Convention No. 169, are implemented in the countries where Indigenous Peoples live. This is where I face serious difficulties because there is still a low level of awareness on the part of many governments and the dominant society on Indigenous Peoples’ issues, rights and demands. Many Indigenous Peoples have the view that there is also a lack of political will on the part of governments to respect, protect and fulfill Indigenous Peoples’ individual and collective human rights.

I would also like to see that Indigenous Peoples’ human rights and development issues are included in the post-2015 development agenda and in the future climate agreement which, hopefully, will be adopted in Paris this year. Indigenous Peoples are among those who are most impoverished and marginalized and yet they are the ones contributing to the solutions for climate change by sustaining the ecosystems in their territories. Their sustainable and simple lifeways, the values and ways they harmoniously relate with nature, and their traditional knowledge contribute significantly in making this world more sustainable. Thus, respecting and fulfilling their rights to their lands, territories and resources not only lessens poverty, but is also linked to positive climate outcomes. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go before the implementation of the Declaration and decisions in their favor made by Supreme Courts and regional courts, like the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. Egregious human rights violations continue even in countries that have ratified international human rights conventions and instruments like the UNDRIP.

Seven years after the adoption of UNDRIP what has improved for Indigenous Peoples?

There have been several gains achieved after the adoption of the Declaration. There are countries, like Bolivia and Ecuador, which passed laws on Indigenous Peoples’ rights using all or most of the articles in the Declaration. There are courts, like the Supreme Court of Belize and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), which made favorable decisions on issues brought to them by Indigenous Peoples. Most important of all, Indigenous Peoples in many countries are using the Declaration for awareness raising and campaigns they are doing to claim their rights. I would daresay that Indigenous Peoples’ movements in many countries and regions and even the global movement gained more strength after the adoption of the UNDRIP.

The confidence and commitment of many Indigenous Peoples to sustain their fights when their lands and rights are threatened have definitely been reinforced and developed. But it is also a fact that there are still many who do not know their rights, or are not able to stand up for those rights when they are abused. Many IPs are still victims of land grabbing by corporations and individuals, with the complicity of some State actors. The Declaration is a tool to fight these battles, and in some cases, these battles are being won. Earlier this year, Ecopetrol dismantled its drilling site in the ancestral territory of the U'wa in Colombia after the U’wa’s sustained protests. This is testament to their resolve and to what can be accomplished when public opinion is galvanized and international pressure brought to bear. More governments are recognizing that they must include Indigenous Peoples in the discussion. The right of Indigenous Peoples to have their free, prior and informed consent obtained before any development project enters their territories is now being used extensively by Indigenous Peoples. This is one positive example, but the battle is long from over for many.

How has the post-2015 development process taken into account the rights of Indigenous Peoples?

Unfortunately, the rights of Indigenous Peoples have not been significantly integrated into the post-2015 development agenda. Not yet, anyway. The organization I headed before I become the Special Rapporteur, Tebtebba, continues to work to bring Indigenous Peoples’ voices and issues to the Post-2015 processes. We are not very happy with the latest draft SDG Outcome Document as it contains no explicit language on the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ or communities’ land rights. Without explicit recognition, we are in danger of leaving behind the 1.5 billion people who govern their land through community tenure systems.

In the UNFCCC negotiations, we are also pressing hard to ensure recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ role in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Research shows that respecting the land rights of Indigenous Peoples is one of the most effective ways of combating climate change; our contributions must be respected and supported.

The Sengwer tribal peoples in Kenya are being evicted from their homelands for a Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+) related project.

There are existing safeguards in the REDD decisions reached in several UNFCCC processes which include the need to respect the rights and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, including the need for their full and effective participation, among others. However, these safeguards are not yet implemented by most governments.

There is absolutely no excuse for governments to forcibly evict Indigenous Peoples from their land. This is not just contrary to the UNDRIP and international human rights law. It is also a violation of the REDD+ safeguards. The government illegally forced the Sengwer from their ancestral homes, the land they had lived on for centuries, as part of a World Bank-funded development project. Even World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has criticized the evictions, but they haven’t stopped. Land grabs in the name of REDD+, conservation, and development are unfortunately seen in many indigenous territories, and are often accompanied by grave human rights violations: evictions, persecution, imprisonment, and killings. I hope that the international attention brought to issues like these will convince the government that it must reverse its policies immediately.

The number of indigenous nations working on an international level has grown exponentially, with new organizations, networks, and movements appearing monthly and with them, new communications projects to ensure the world has access to the indigenous side of the story. Despite these considerable advances, various governments, corporations, paramilitary organizations and special interest groups continue to violate indigenous rights, in some cases dragging entire civilizations to extinction. How will you work to remedy this crisis?

There is no easy solution to this problem, but I am constantly amazed at the solutions and strategies that my fellow Indigenous Peoples put forth. And there are a number of tools at my disposal to help raise awareness of both the issues and potential solutions to the problems that Indigenous Peoples are facing. By leveraging these tools I hope to galvanize international pressure against the violation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and help promote constructive dialogues between states and Indigenous Peoples towards mutually agreed solutions to the problems they face. Corporations also have to be pushed to respect the human rights of Indigenous Peoples and to create systems where Indigenous Peoples are fairly compensated when resources are extracted from their territories. Part of my work is to talk with governments and corporations as well as other actors like paramilitary groups to stop violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

Ultimately, while Indigenous Peoples around the world face similar challenges, these battles are often won at the local levels. When I first became an activist in the 1970s, I got involved with the campaign against the Chico River Hydroelectric Dam, which would have displaced 300,000 Kalinga and Bontoc people. We managed to stop the dam from being built and the World Bank had to cancel its funding for this project. In southern Chile, the Mapuche people continue to make progress in reclaiming land colonized by Europeans in the late 19th century. Just last year they received a promise that 50,000 hectares (123,552.69 acres) would be returned to them. These local battles draw on international victories like the adoption of UNDRIP. I am proud and thankful for this progress, but there are still far too many Indigenous Peoples who today are battling for their rights to be recognized and respected.

Does being so active in the international arena leave you much time for a personal life?

I am not just an activist for Indigenous Peoples but also for women. I believe in the saying that “the personal is political and the political is personal.” For me there is no dichotomy between my personal and my professional life. Whatever I do in my work to promote the rights and development aspirations of Indigenous Peoples will also contribute to a better life for my family and my community. It would be good if I had more time to spend with my family and I try to do this within the limitations I have.

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