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Statement of Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples to the Human Rights Council 39th Session

Geneva, 19 September 2018

Mr. President,
Distinguished delegates,
Indigenous peoples’ representatives,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to address the Human Rights Council today and present my reports. I would like to start by expressing my gratitude to the numerous States, indigenous peoples, and others, and in particular to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for the support they have provided as I have carried out my mandate over the past year.  

I have, in the exercise of my mandate, observed a worrying escalation in the attacks, criminalisation and threats against indigenous peoples who are defending their rights to protect their lands, territories and resources. For this reason, I have decided to dedicate my thematic report to the Council to this topic.

As I have documented through country visits and communications, attacks and criminalisation arise, in most cases, when indigenous leaders and community members voice opposition to large-scale projects relating to extractive industries, agribusiness, infrastructure, hydroelectric dams and logging. These violations are occurring in the context of intensified competition for and exploitation of natural resources. Large so-called development projects are causing irreparable harm to our environment and to the natural resources that indigenous peoples depend on for their survival.

Conservation projects and climate change adaption and mitigation measures also risk undermining the rights of indigenous peoples, unless they build in human rights safeguards. Indigenous peoples’ ways of life and subsistence have been deemed illegal or incompatible with conservation and climate change projects, leading to the prohibition of indigenous traditional livelihoods and the arrest, detention and forced eviction of indigenous peoples. 

In the worst situations, escalating militarisation, fuelled by the demand over natural resources, results in indigenous peoples being targeted under national security acts and anti-terrorism legislation, putting them in the line of fire, at times literally, by the army, the police and private armed actors.

I am particularly concerned over the rapid increase of projects, commonly funded through international and bilateral investment agreements, where the financial gains primarily benefit foreign investors who have little or no regard for the rights and well-being of indigenous communities or for environmental protection. 

Indigenous peoples are increasingly challenging projects on their traditional lands through social mobilisation and legal avenues. In retaliation for advocating for the protection of their lands, territories and resources, indigenous peoples are being accused of being obstacles to development and acting against national interests. This places indigenous communities who seek to protect their lands at the forefront of conflict, as targets of persecution.

A common pattern is that large-scale projects are frequently undertaken without consulting the indigenous peoples concerned, nor is their free, prior and informed consent sought. When measures have been undertaken to consult with indigenous peoples, these have often been culturally inappropriate, lacked good faith and been driven primarily by an incentive to have already elaborated projects rubber-stamped, with no intention of allowing for genuine review or participation in their design and execution. 

A crucial underlying cause of the current intensified attacks is the failure to respect collective land rights and to provide indigenous communities with secure land tenure, as this in turn undermines their ability to effectively defend their lands from the damage caused by large-scale projects. Disregard of indigenous rights of traditional lands ownership breeds tensions, violence and criminalisation, as indigenous peoples become trespassers or illegal occupants of their own lands, subjected to criminal charges and forcibly evicted from the lands they rely upon for their livelihoods, social and cultural cohesion and spiritual traditions. 

Mr. President,

My report highlights examples of specific cases and countries, however it only provides a snapshot of a widespread global pattern as in large parts of the world, many attacks against indigenous defenders go unreported and never figure in the media. 

I have recorded disconcerting and rising numbers of attacks, acts of violence, threats and criminalisation of indigenous peoples globally, with particular incidence in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Mexico, Peru and the Philippines. The same countries have been identified by other human rights mechanisms and civil society organisations that monitor attacks against indigenous peoples, providing consistent indications that these countries represent particularly worrying situations. Authorities have repeatedly been urged to take action but have failed to take adequate measures to improve the protection of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous leaders and communities seeking to raise their concerns over the negative impacts of projects on their rights, livelihoods and the environment have been targeted and killed, forcibly evicted, threatened and subjected to insidious harassment in the form of criminal charges which are often nebulous, grossly inflated or fictitious. The aim of these attacks, whether violent or legal, is to silence any opposition by indigenous peoples to business interests and to prevent indigenous peoples from exercising their rights.

Although some global estimates exist of the number of defenders who have been killed, there is no such information available on the extent to which judicial harassment and criminal charges are levied against indigenous peoples. Commonly, criminal charges are brought against indigenous peoples who oppose large-scale projects and seek to inform and organise their communities, demanding access to information and the right to participate in consultations and to give their free, prior and informed consent. Racist defamation and smear campaigns, often initiated by private interests, are commonly directed against indigenous leaders before criminal charges are issued.

Prosecutors and judges contribute to the misuse of criminal law by accepting uncorroborated accusations and issuing warrants without sufficient evidence, allowing unfounded prosecutions to advance and improperly interpreting the law to incriminate indigenous defenders. While legislators may not be directly involved in criminalisation, they contribute through the adoption of legislation that includes vague definitions of criminal offences, including serious offences such as terrorism, or that unduly punishes the exercise of rights such as freedom of expression and assembly. Multiple, broad and ill-defined criminal charges are often brought, including charges such as trespassing, usurpation, conspiracy, kidnapping, coercion, disturbance of public order and incitement of crime.

Indigenous peoples are particularly disadvantaged in criminal proceedings as they often are not provided adequate legal counsel or interpretation in indigenous languages and may be held in prolonged pre-trial detention, sometimes years, far away from their family and community.

The attacks, killings and criminalisation of indigenous leaders damage the social fabric of indigenous communities. 

Prosecution and detention cause significant impacts on indigenous individuals’ mental and physical well-being, jeopardise their ability to maintain their livelihoods and reduce their possibilities to defend the rights of their community. It also seeks to censor and scare other community members to remain silent out of fear of being targeted themselves.

Indigenous women suffer gendered impacts of criminalisation. Smear campaigns tend to target indigenous leaders by spreading rumours that they are dishonourable women of poor reputation who violate indigenous traditions by engaging in public participation and advocacy on community concerns. The aim of such defamation is to disempower and alienate women from their families and communities. When men are detained, women bear the brunt of their absence as they have to single-handedly assume responsibility for securing resources for their family, including food and the means to send their children to school. During my recent country visit to Guatemala, I met with numerous indigenous women whose husbands were detained and heard first-hand accounts of the dire consequences for the affected women and their families.

In my report, I also address prevention and protection measures for indigenous peoples, highlighting examples of community led initiatives, such as indigenous networks and monitoring systems and the use of indigenous guards for self-protection. I also note the importance of national protection programmes and policies and the role of international actors. I wish to emphasise that protection measures for indigenous peoples need to be culturally appropriate, consider gender aspects and must be developed jointly with the communities concerned. 

Among the key recommendations in my report, I wish to emphasise that it is crucial to establish accountability for those responsible for attacks against indigenous peoples. The widespread impunity for violent acts against indigenous peoples globally continues to perpetuate their vulnerability and marginalisation. To prevent conflicts and attacks, it is imperative that authorities at the highest level recognise publicly the rights of indigenous peoples and in particular their collective land rights and their rights to determine priorities, participate, be consulted and consent in relation to the development and use of their lands, territories and resources.

Combatting criminalisation requires a comprehensive review of national laws and the revocation of legislation and criminal procedures that violate the principle of legality and contradict international obligations. Provisions that in practice criminalise the freedom of expression and assembly, and at times also indigenous livelihoods such as rotational agriculture, hunting and gathering, should be repealed. 

Private companies must exercise human rights due diligence in all operations and adopt clear policy commitments to that effect and perform ongoing human rights impact assessments for all projects, with the full participation of potentially affected indigenous communities. 

International donors and financial institutions need to adopt safeguards consistent with human rights obligations in all projects that they support, notably by requiring human rights impact assessments of all projects; the effective participation of affected indigenous communities and they should also demand specific protections for indigenous peoples and effective procedures to pursue remedies if needed.

I wish to conclude this topic my expressing my appreciation for all the expressions of support and solidarity I have received this past year, as I have myself been the victim of criminalisation.

Mr. President,

I am also presenting a thematic report to the Council on indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact in South America, based on a meeting arranged in Peru last year. The conclusions highlight the need to redouble efforts to improve protection for the territories and environment of indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact, in line with international standards. States should refrain from implementing actions that affect their lands and resources, while there is also a need to develop and adequately implement differentiated policies directed at indigenous peoples in initial contact, notably in the area of health.

While referring to thematic studies, I also wish to note that my report to the General Assembly this year focuses on indigenous peoples’ own governing systems and the role they can play in achieving sustainable development. As the report shows, increasing indigenous peoples’ ability to govern and deliver public services through their own institutions, based on their own cultural values has positive outcomes in terms of better and more appropriate service-delivery, conservation and protection of nature, sustainable and self-defined development, self-determination as well as conflict reduction. It is necessary to document such examples further and provide guidance on how to open the space for indigenous self-governing institutions to govern and contribute to sustainable development. This is a topic I intend to explore further in the coming year. 

I now wish to refer to the reports I am presenting today on my two most recent country visits, to Mexico in November last year and to Guatemala in May this year. I wish to thank the Governments of Mexico and Guatemala for their invitations and for their cooperation during the missions and for allowing me to pursue the missions in an independent manner. 

Mexico and Guatemala have played an important role in supporting the advancement of the rights of indigenous peoples at the international arena, including in the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in the establishment of my mandate. However, at the national level, both countries still face serious challenges in implementing these commitments.

In Mexico, I received information about positive steps taken in the fields of health and education, as well as efforts to facilitate indigenous peoples’ access to justice. However, I could observe that the actual situation of indigenous peoples in the country reflects a huge gap between the international commitments adopted by the State and the reality on the ground.

There is a need for effective and coordinated action at the federal, state and municipal levels to confront the serious situation of indigenous peoples in terms of lack of adequate implementation of their rights to self-determination and to their lands, territories and natural resources, their political participation and access to justice. Urgent measures should also be adopted to solve the violence and insecurity problems as well as the poverty, marginalisation and discrimination that they confront. It is necessary to create a sustained and inclusive dialogue between the State and the indigenous peoples and a new relationship based on equality, respect and non-discrimination.

In Guatemala, indigenous peoples constitute the majority of the population. In spite of this, they have never participated on equal footing in the political, social, cultural and economic life of the country. I could observe that indigenous peoples face structural racism and discrimination in their daily lives, reflected in the lack of protection of their lands, territories and natural resources and in their difficulties in gaining access to justice, health, education and political participation. I am concerned that in spite of the overall national economic growth, the levels of inequality are increasing.  Around 40 per cent of indigenous peoples still live in extreme poverty, and more than half of all indigenous children in Guatemala are malnourished. 

I observed that the implementation of the vast majority of the commitments in 1996 Peace Accord on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and Identity remain unfulfilled, as do most of the recommendations issued in 2002 by my predecessor, Professor Stavenhagen, following his country visit. There has been inadequate progress in particular in relation to securing land rights, access to health services and bilingual intercultural education and recognition of indigenous authorities and justice systems. 

Both in Mexico and Guatemala, I received numerous complaints about the impacts of the current development model on the rights of indigenous peoples. The drastic increase of extractive and other projects fails to respect indigenous peoples’ right to determine their own priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands, territories and natural resources. These projects are generally undertaken without adequate human rights impact assessments nor appropriate consultations to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned.

And as mentioned before, I am extremely concerned about the increasing levels of violence, forced evictions and the criminalisation of indigenous peoples in both Mexico and Guatemala. In Guatemala, I visited indigenous leaders in prison and I am particularly disturbed by the killings of several indigenous leaders during and since my recent visit. 

My next official country visit will be to Ecuador in November this year. Next year I am looking forward to visiting Malaysia, which has already accepted a visit during the first quarter of 2019. I hope to undertake more country visits to Africa and Asia. This is a priority for my mandate.

In addition to my country visits, as part of my mandate, I continue to share information to governments and other actors in relation to allegations of violations of indigenous peoples’ rights across the world. Since I last reported to the Human Rights Council, my mandate has issued 40 allegation letters to 19 countries plus various private companies in relation to reported violations of a range of civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights. 

Allegation letters were sent to Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, the Russian Federation and United States of America. One letter was sent to the European Commission. I wish to thank those Governments and entities that have engaged and responded to the alleged human rights violations and encourage those that have not yet responded to do so.

I will now conclude my statement. I thank you all for your kind attention and I look forward to our interactive dialogue.