Global Policy Forum

Indigenous Peoples' Rights Ignored Again


By Julio Godoy

Inter Press Service
April 10, 2007

The rights of indigenous people are given respect in speech after speech, but few countries have signed up to an international convention to protect those rights.

The Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, also known as Convention 169, was proposed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in June 1989. But the convention has been ratified by only 18 countries, mostly developing nations from Latin America.

In Europe, only Norway, the Netherlands and Spain have approved the convention. The German Bundestag (parliament) debated the convention last week, and turned it down. Most members of the German parliament agreed on the need to protect the rights of indigenous people. "Indigenous peoples through their experience and specific knowledge of nature contribute in a particular way to cultural diversity," Liberal member Karl Addicks said. "We Liberals expressly support the protection and respect of indigenous people." But he went on to oppose the convention.

Green deputy Thilo Hoppe, who had proposed approval of the ILO convention to the Bundestag, said the debate was "a shame" particularly since Rodolfo Stavenhagen, UN special rapporteur on human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, was attending the session as special guest. Hoppe said "the opposition to convention 169 derives from the fear that the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples could constitute an obstacle for German and other international private companies operating in the regions inhabited by them."

Convention 169 calls for protection of natural resources in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. Article 15, paragraph 1 of the convention states: "The rights of the peoples concerned to the natural resources pertaining to their lands shall be specially safeguarded. These rights include the right of these peoples to participate in the use, management and conservation of these resources."

Paragraph 2 of the same article states: "In cases in which the State retains the ownership of mineral or sub-surface resources or rights to other resources pertaining to lands, governments shall establish or maintain procedures through which they shall consult these peoples, with a view to ascertaining whether and to what degree their interests would be prejudiced, before undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation of such resources pertaining to their lands." In addition, the convention says the peoples concerned "shall wherever possible participate in the benefits of such activities, and shall receive fair compensation for any damages which they may sustain as a result of such activities."

Convention 169 has been invoked by indigenous peoples in several conflicts over exploitation of natural resources like gold, gas and oil, especially in Latin America. In Guatemala, the rights the government gave to the Canadian firm Glamis to exploit gold mines in a region inhabited by Mayan peasants in the south-western area San Marcos, has been a source of conflict since 2003. Representatives of Indians say that the Guatemalan government has approved convention 169, and is therefore obliged to protect natural resources on Indians' land. The Guatemalan government has ignored the Mayan Indians' pleas.

According to the ILO, most of the world's estimated 350 million indigenous people are marginalised in almost every aspect of daily life. In a paper arguing the need to approve the convention, the ILO says that "with globalisation, increasing population pressure on their traditional lands and the increasing pressure on natural resources, (indigenous peoples) are faced with increasing poverty, ill health and discrimination."

In a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, Stavenhagen said adoption of new legal norms and the creation of a modern institutional framework "represent great progress in the protection of indigenous peoples' rights." But, he said, "there is still an 'implementation gap' between the norms and the practice, between the formal recognition and the actual situation of indigenous peoples."

In Latin America, Stavenhagen told the council, "the gradual deterioration of the indigenous habitat and the impact of extractive activities on the environment and on indigenous peoples' rights are matters of special concern, especially in the Amazon, the northern border areas and the Pacific coast."

More Information on Nations & States
More information on Emerging States & Claims to Autonomy and Independence


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.