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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination discusses Suriname with an NGO

Committee on the Elimination
  of Racial Discrimination

10 August 2015

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this morning heard from representatives of a non-governmental organization from Suriname, ahead of its review of its report later today.

A representative of the Forest Peoples Programme said that in Suriname, indigenous and tribal people were not recognized and that they were legally incapable of holding rights and seeking protection in court of their collective rights.  All land was considered State property and there was no legal requirement for consultation with indigenous people.  Suriname continued to issue more mining and logging concessions, in violation of several Inter-American Court of Human Rights judgements, and had refused to comply with those legally binding judgements because it considered that the recognition of indigenous people would be discriminatory to the rest of the population and interfere with the rights of the State and the national population to exploit natural resources.  The Committee should make a strong statement regarding that argument and emphasise the need to recognize indigenous peoples and protect collectives and their rights, in accordance with international law.

In the ensuing discussion Committee Experts asked why Suriname refused to respond to international legal requirements and recognize indigenous people, why the Maroon people were not recognized as indigenous people, and which other groups in the country suffered racial discrimination.  The priorities of indigenous and tribal peoples in relation to the activities of the Presidential Commissioner on Land Rights was enquired about, as was Suriname’s cooperation with the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and how that affected indigenous people.

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. today to start its review of the combined thirteenth to fifteenth report of Suriname (CERD/C/SUR/13-15). 

The country reviews can be watched via live webcast at http://www.treatybodywebcast.org.

Statement on Suriname

A representative of the Forest Peoples Programme said that in Suriname, indigenous people were not recognized.  The Committee was aware of the ongoing discrimination faced by indigenous and tribal peoples in Suriname which it had addressed in its recommendations and concluding observations since 2003.  Unfortunately, Suriname had not taken any steps to implement them.  Indigenous people constituted about four per cent of the population, and tribal people approximately 21 per cent.  The lack of recognition of indigenous people extended to the lack of their recognition before the law: they were incapable of holding rights and seeking protection in court of their collective rights which meant that a quarter of the population of Suriname was denied remedy in national courts.  The legislation allowed the State to do what it wanted with indigenous land, there was no legal requirement for consultation and indigenous peoples were regarded as living on the State’s land.  Suriname continued to issue more mining and logging concessions in violation of several judgements of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which were legally binding.  The State refused to comply with those judgements saying that the recognition of indigenous people would be discriminatory to the rest of the population and would interfere with the right of the State and the national population to exploit natural resources.  The Committee should make a strong statement regarding that argument and emphasise the need to recognize indigenous peoples and protect collectives and their rights, in accordance with international law.

Discussion on Suriname

During the discussion Committee Experts asked whether there were human rights defenders among the indigenous people and whether the State took any action against those defenders.  The representative of the Forest Peoples Programme was also asked to explain the reasons behind Suriname’s refusal to respond to international legal requirements and recognize indigenous people, and what was being done to raise the awareness among non-governmental organizations working on the issue.  The Presidential Commission on Land Rights had come up with proposals concerning consultation with indigenous people, noted another Expert, but it seemed that indigenous people did not think land rights were a priority; what were the priorities of indigenous people in Suriname?

Responding to the questions and issues raised by the Committee Experts, the representative of the Forest Peoples Programme confirmed that there were human rights defenders in Suriname, who were usually community-based people and community chiefs who took leadership on issues affecting the people.  Each village had a chief who was a member of the national association of traditional leaders.  There were no non-governmental organizations in Suriname working actively on indigenous and tribal issues; it was indigenous and tribal people themselves who took on the roles of right defenders.  There were reports of threats and harassment of the Saramaka leaders for their statements made before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which had repeatedly reminded the State not to interfere with the statements of witnesses before the Court.

Ninety per cent of the population of Suriname lived in or around the capital city which meant that the rest of the country was very sparsely populated and was considered by the capital as the place to exploit natural resources.  The recognition of the indigenous people and their lands was seen as an interference with the national development fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources.

The priorities identified by the Presidential Commissioner on Land Rights included awareness campaign on land rights, developing a protocol on free prior consultation, and developing the laws on traditional authority, but those were not considered priorities by the indigenous and tribal people.  The priority was the law recognizing the indigenous people and their land rights, and giving them the ability to make decisions about their land, societies and culture.  The land rights and the right to free and prior consultation were important, but they should be addressed by a law, and not in a protocol.

In a further series of questions, Committee Experts asked for clarification on the organization of the court system in Suriname in which seemingly the principle of separation of power was not applied, the reasons for which the Maroon people were regarded as different from and not recognized as indigenous people, what would be the key priorities at the moment, and whether there were other groups in Suriname in addition to indigenous and tribal people, who suffered racial discrimination and should be of concern to the Committee.

Responding, the representative of the Forest Peoples Programme said that there were very few judges in courts of first instance and that court proceedings were very lengthy.  Two major human rights violations in Suriname included the December 1982 massacre and the Moiwana massacre of 1982.  In 2007 a case was taken up to prosecute the suspected perpetrators, some through military courts and some through civilian courts.  It was mind boggling that the sitting President, who had just been re-elected, was one of the suspects in those prosecutions, the representative commented.

The Maroon were recognized by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as tribal people, and Suriname recognized them as indigenous people but did not recognize their rights; the non-recognition of indigenous people in Suriname meant non-recognition of the rights that emanated from the status of indigenous or tribal people. Suriname was not a signatory of International Labour Organization Convention 169, but it was important to say that the implementation of the Saramaka decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights provided greater protection than the Convention 169.  There were other ethnic groups which experienced discrimination in Suriname, but groups that experienced structural, institutionalized, pervasive discrimination were indigenous and tribal people.  Suriname was the only country in Latin America which had done nothing to address the issue of indigenous people.

Answering the question on carbon trading and how it affected indigenous people, the representative of the Forest Peoples Programme said that Suriname had sought funding from the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) and the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility; the United Nations Development Programme was about to agree partnership with Suriname and it was important that the Committee expressed its opinion on the situation of indigenous people in the country.  Some 90 per cent of the forest in Suriname coincided with indigenous and tribal territories, which meant the burden of the REDD process would be largely on the shoulders of indigenous and tribal people, while the benefits would be felt elsewhere. 

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For use of the information media; not an official record

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