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Towards Dignity and Equality in Rights for Asia’s Indigenous Peoples

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Amidst fresh headway into the indigenous peoples' long-standing struggle to win recognition for their human rights, social justice, equality and dignity, FORUM-ASIA celebrates the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. The recent passage of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations Human Rights Council capped more than a decade of perseverance to claim and reclaim the indigenous peoples' entitlements and fundamental freedoms.

The world celebrates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, on 9 August 2006 amidst fresh headway into the indigenous peoples’ long-standing struggle to win recognition for their human rights and for social justice, equality and dignity. The recent passage of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations Human Rights Council capped more than a decade of perseverance to claim and reclaim the indigenous peoples’ rights and fundamental freedoms.

This year’s commemoration also comes at a time of continued and greater threats to their well-being and survival. Increasing challenges posed by “development” and corporate globalisation pry open the indigenous peoples’ resource-rich and fertile areas and villages, sacred grounds and ancestral domains for resource-extraction such as commercial logging and large-scale mining, oil exploration as well as big plantations for commercial crops and mega-development projects such as dams that submerge villages and displace communities and with it, a whole way of life.

The indigenous peoples in Asia, already bearing multiple burdens from interlocking vulnerabilities of poverty, gender and ethnicity-based discrimination — are among the most marginalised populations in the world, voiceless in policy-making, barely visible in “development” agendas and easily expendable in the ruthless march of corporate globalisation that has led to the opening of markets and the promotion of large-scale, extractive, export-oriented commerce and production by many Asian governments.

Indigenous women, in particular, suffer disproportionately on account of gender and socially ascribed roles. Filling in the social services that often fail to reach them and their families, their labour hours lengthen even further with the disruption of the traditional food, water and natural healing resources as a consequence of the displacements of their families and communities. Women and girls are pressed to look elsewhere for solutions to their families’ deprivation. The vulnerabilities from their marginalised status are often exploited by labor recruiters, sex trade industries and traffickers. Indigenous women’s health and agricultural knowledge has also been exposed to the bio-piracy of big pharmaceutical firms and multinational agricultural companies.

In the name of “national development” and globalisation, an increasingly widening swathe of destruction stretches from the communities of the Dayaks and West Papuans in Indonesia, the Igorot and Lumad in the Philippines to the Karen and the Mon in Thailand, the Hmong peoples in Laos and the Montagnards caught in the highland borders of Cambodia and Vietnam. Through the protection and enforcement of their laws, policies and armed forces, Asian governments literally bulldoze their way through indigenous communities often without their free, prior and informed consent.

Resisting indigenous communities often bear the brunt of harsh reprisals from state-sanctioned armed forces in order to subdue their will, pacify or cow them into terror. Entire villages are thus displaced and active indigenous organisations and their leaders are targeted and killed. In the Philippines for instance, the recent cold-blooded murder of Indigenous leaders Marcus Bangit and Alice Claver by suspected military death squads, the militarisation of many indigenous areas, the government’s plans to change the constitution to attract more foreign investors in extractive industries such as mining, and the reported plan to scrap or render inutile the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) are stark testimonies of the unbridled and worsening assaults on the indigenous peoples’ rights by an Asian government that has been recently elected to the new Human Rights Council.

The United Nations have declared the year 2005-2015 as the second UN International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Still, many urgent challenges remain to be addressed until the indigenous peoples in Asia and elsewhere, will be able to achieve dignity and equality in the enjoyment of their rights, alongside the world’s peoples and citizens.

FORUM-ASIA recognises that the Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples provides a historic opportunity for both governments and indigenous peoples to advance indigenous peoples’ rights worthy of their dignity as part of the world’s humanity. FORUM-ASIA calls for the swift adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples by the UN General Assembly.

However, for this declaration to truly make a difference, the greater challenges lie in the multitude of tasks needed to translate the rights enshrined in this declaration as well as in other international conventions and instruments. These tasks also include the continued assertion of: the indigenous people’s collective rights, their right to self-identification, their permanent sovereignty over their natural resources and sources of subsistence, and their inviolable right to free, prior and informed consent. Governments and other duty-bearers must also be held effectively accountable for their human rights obligations, and for ensuring redress and justice for violated indigenous communities and other victims of human rights violations.

To this end, FORUM-ASIA will work in partnership and solidarity with the indigenous and human rights community, both in Asia and internationally, so that the slogan of “human rights for all” will not remain hollow but eventually ring true to all indigenous peoples, particularly in Asia.