Commemorating International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued this message and posed this question: “On this day, let us ask the crucial question: who actually benefits from this so-called development, and at what cost is such development taking place?”
International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed each year on August 9 to celebrate the contributions of the world’s indigenous peoples and underscore the needs of these vital yet vulnerable communities.
One such group is the Montagnards, an indigenous Christian minority living in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, who have a long history of persecution by the Vietnamese government. Recently, they have pressed for religious freedom and land rights, and faced intensified repression. Human Rights Watch details the latest government crackdowns in their 2011 report Montagnard Christians in Vietnam: A Case Study in Religious Repression which documents police sweeps to root out Montagnards in hiding, how the authorities have dissolved house church gatherings, orchestrated coerced renunciations of faith, and sealed off the border to prevent asylum seekers from fleeing to Cambodia.
In an interview with Human Rights Watch, one Montagnard described his treatment at T-20, the provincial prison in Gia Lai, after he was arrested for participating in a protest calling for religious freedom and land rights: “They questioned me at any time, even midnight. The police would get drunk, wake me up, and question me and beat me. They put me in handcuffs when they took me out for questioning. The handcuffs were like wire – very tight. They used electric shock on me every time they interrogated me. They would shock me on my knees, saying you used these legs to walk to the demonstration.”
Sentenced to five years in prison for “violating national solidarity,” he remains partially deaf from repeatedly being boxed on both ears: “They would stand facing me and shout: “One, two, three!” and then use both hands to box both of my ears at the same time. They would do this three times, the last time putting strong pressure on the ears. Blood came out of my ears and my nose. I went crazy from this. It was so painful, and also the build-up made me very afraid and tense.”
There are many more stories like his: more than 70 Montagnards were detained or arrested in 2010 alone, and more than 250 are known to be imprisoned on national security charges.
Recent heavy fighting in Burma is another example of the tensions between minority people and that government, as clashes have intensified in the last two months. An estimated 10,000 Kachin refugees had fled the fighting and attempted to enter China by the end of June, after the Kachin Independent Army and the Burmese military ended a 17-year ceasefire arrangement on June 9, with each side accusing the other of instigating the fighting.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s pro-democracy leader, asked that both sides put down their weapons and begin dialogue after decades of civil war in a letter issued July 28, warning that “national reconciliation cannot be gained by fighting, but only through political negotiations.”
Naing Han Thar, leader of the New Mon State Party and secretary of the United Nationals Federal Council — comprised of 11 ethnic groups, including the Mon, Kachin, Karen, and Shan – said his groups would respect Suu Kyi’s wishes: “We support and welcome it. She has represented all of us [in the letter] and has also made her request from a neutral point of view,” he said.
Honoring the culture and plight of the world’s indigenous peoples like the Montagnards in Vietnam, the Kachin in Burma and the thousands of other indigenous peoples around Asia and the globe, the United Nations General Assembly decided that the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People shall be observed on August 9 every year by resolution 49/214 passed on December 23, 1994. The date marks the day of the first meeting, in 1982, of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
There is tremendous diversity in the indigenous community around the world including 5,000 distinct groups in some 90 countries, accounting for more than 5 percent of the world’s population, some 370 million people. They have unique and valuable cultural histories that are fast-disappearing.
According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized agency of the United Nations dedicated to eradicating rural poverty, about 70 percent of the world’s indigenous peoples live in Asia and the Pacific.
Indigenous groups form a small proportion of the general population but constitute concentrations of extreme poverty and marginalization and they are isolated in many ways. They often live in remote upland and mountain areas, and their languages, culture and religions set them apart from mainstream societies and economies. Although indigenous peoples make up less than 6 percent of the global population, they speak more than 4,000 of the world’s 7,000 languages. One of the root causes of the poverty and marginalization of indigenous peoples is loss of control over their traditional lands, territories and natural resources.
Calling on all Member States to take steps to address the challenges facing indigenous peoples — including marginalization, extreme poverty and loss of lands, territories and resources — and to “ending the grave human rights abuses” that indigenous peoples encounter in many parts of the world, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made this statement today marking the occasion and called on member countries to end human rights abuses against indigenous peoples:
“On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we reaffirm the rights of indigenous peoples and our shared commitment to advance the values of equity, justice and dignity for all. Indigenous peoples face many challenges in maintaining their identity, traditions and customs, and their cultural contributions are at times exploited and commercialized, with little or no recognition. We must work harder to recognize and strengthen their right to control their intellectual property, and help them to protect, develop and be compensated fairly for the cultural heritage and traditional knowledge that is ultimately of benefit to us all.”
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007. It is a comprehensive statement of the rights of indigenous peoples and an indication that the international community is committing itself to the protection of the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples. Dr. James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples said that “Implementation of the Declaration should be regarded as a political, moral and, yes, legal imperative without qualification.”
He also calls on indigenous peoples to build on their capacities but at the same time protect their cultures and way of life in this video:
The Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact, a Thailand-based organization established by indigenous peoples’ organizations in 1992 to strengthen the struggles, cooperation and solidarity among indigenous peoples across Asia. Click over to their site to learn more about the many indigenous peoples in the region.