Friday, April 13, 2007

German Bundestag Says No to Indigenous Rights

IPS News

Last week, Germany’s Bundestag (Parliament) refused to sign on to Convention 169, officially entitled The Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

The Convention, which was adopted at the seventy-sixth session (June, 1989) of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland, sought to revise The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1957 with an eye toward removing its assimilationist orientation. In conjunction with its mandate that governments shall guarantee equal legal, socio-economic, and political footing for indigenous peoples, the 1989 human rights instrument also prescribes that governments must do so in a manner that guarantees respect for the integrity of indigenous cultural identity, customs, values, and traditional institutions. Article 7, paragraph 1, for instance, states that “The peoples concerned shall have the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use, and to exercise control, to the extent possible, over their own economic, social and cultural development. In addition, they shall participate in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of plans and programs for national and regional development which may affect them directly.” According to the ILO, an estimated 350 million indigenous people around the globe are marginalized in most aspects of daily living.

Although most members of the German Bundestag agree on the need for protection of indigenous people’s rights, entrenched corporate interests fueled their opposition to the Convention. Many indigenous and tribal people inhabit areas rich in natural resources that international private companies exploit. The Convention instructs governments to protect natural resources in lands inhabited by indigenous populations. According to Article 15, the rights of indigenous peoples include their right to “participate in the use, management, and conservation” of natural resources pertaining to their lands. Accordingly, governments that retain ownership of mineral, sub-surface, or other natural resources are supposed to consult with indigenous people before undertaking any programs for the exploitation of these resources. In addition, indigenous peoples should “receive fair compensation for any damages which they may sustain as a result of such activities.”

It is not surprising, then, that of the mere 18 countries which have ratified the Convention, most are developing nations from Latin America. Norway, the Netherlands, and Spain are the only European countries to approve the Convention. Even among those nations that have ratified the Convention, “there is still an implementation gap between the norms and the practice, between the formal recognition and the actual situation of indigenous peoples,” explains Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights of indigenous people. An ILO report argues in support of the Convention by pointing to the increased population pressure on traditional tribal lands and the draining of natural resources resulting from globalization. As a result, indigenous peoples confront growing poverty, health problems, and discrimination.

In Latin America, indigenous people have invoked the Convention to protest the exploitation of gold, gas, and oil. But the Convention may not carry much authority. For instance, despite Mayan protest, the Guatemalan government—a signatory to the Convention—granted rights to the Canadian company Glamis to exploit the San Marcos gold mines, located on traditional Mayan lands. The failure to abide by the Convention’s principles has been a source of conflict between Mayan peasants and the Guatemalan government since 2003.

Reporting on Latin America, Stavenhagen told the United Nations Human Rights Council last month in Geneva that “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.”

The Convention is available at:

For Discussion:

Why would a government ratify the Convention but fail to abide by it?
How could the gap between the recognition of indigenous people and actual practice in implementing the Convention be bridged?

No comments: