Indigenous peoples’ rights issues seem to be on the outer fringe of the everyday news in most of the western world. In the non-Western world, the matter is different. There are over 350 million people considered to be part of one of the world’s indigenous peoples. Mostly they live in remote areas rich in natural resources and where governments have difficulties in reaching the basic needs of its populations. Because many times the indigenous peoples were not consenting or involved in the process of creating the existing countries on the globe, there are many (inter-)national problems of self-determination. One of the aims of the UN to address issues regarding indigenous peoples’ rights, is to bridge international policies with indigenous realities.

Experiences volunteering at EMRIP for Docip at Geneva
Written by
Alison, South African (Undergraduate Law at Edinburgh University)
Vincent, Dutch (Master of Science in Anthropology, University of Amsterdam)

Many organizations surround the gathering of the indigenous representation with regard to the UN. Since 2006 the international community launched the standard for meeting the political needs of indigenous peoples, be it not conclusively mandatory for individual national governments. At the annual ‘Expert Meeting on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, the representatives of indigenous peoples and representatives of the countries involved, gather to have their say in the diplomatic arena of the UN at Geneva.  

Docip, the Geneva-based Centre for Indigenous for Documentation research and Information, is responsible for the contact with the representatives during the time of the meeting. Furthermore, Docip delivers a very interesting document called ‘Summary Note’ of the EMRIP session. The summary note on the eleventh EMRIP session was very interesting and for anthropologists a must to take a look at, if only for the amount of different indigenous organizations and names of the diplomats involved as well as their main issues.

First, there are organizations that are brought into the EMRIP session by the indigenous peoples (the Docip website provides excellent information for this). Most indigenous peoples are represented through local organizations, mainly NGOs. These are often formed by indigenous peoples with the help of the international community. In addition, indigenous peoples are represented by the UN staff personnel involved at EMRIP, ECOSOC, OHCHR the UNHCR and UNESCO. Furthermore, there are other NGOs that help facilitate the meeting such as Docip and some other, mainly local Swiss, organizations.

Vincent’s experience at EMRIP

In 2006 I graduated as a Master of Science at the University of Amsterdam. I worked extensively in the Dutch healthcare system after my graduation. I was the secretary for the Dutch Anthropology Association for over a year until May 2018. After moving to Geneva, Switzerland, I started looking for a job in international human rights business and indigenous peoples and found the volunteering position at Docip.

In July 2018 I attended the eleventh session of the United Nations Expert Meeting on Indigenous Rights Issues in Geneva. For Docip I worked as a volunteer at this session, mainly to collect the statements that the representatives had read during all agenda items.

Volunteering for Docip at the Expert Mechanism Indigenous Peoples meant a lot to me. The first thing that comes to my mind is working together in a nice team of Docip to engage our qualities in service of the indigenous people and their struggle for being in full control over their existence as independent, as should be in their own opinion.

The agenda for the Emrip meeting covered a wide scope of subjects in a context of very complex interrelated processes and issues. Impossible to catch up with all that is going on. However, from my helicopter view and formation as an anthropologist, I had the pleasure, luck, and honor to witness indigenous diplomacy in situ.

Agenda item 7, over 70 indigenous human rights warriors who represent the blood sweat and tears of their fight for justice being caught in a western way of dealing with their issues, albeit in neutral Switzerland. Nevertheless, an experience that left me partly blown away by its complexity, partly revitalized in my effort to address the unwilling powers to do something and partly completely filled with so much love from all the hard work, sharing of love and dignity from indigenous peoples.

A question that came to mind is what power or which possibilities indigenous peoples have to change the issue of their representation. Docip is doing their job to facilitate indigenous peoples to get represented well for example by capacity building, albeit in a neutral fashion. Docip is not taking part in taking sides in local issues. Also, the UN, some NGOs and some countries are involved in capacity building in order to get the indigenous voice heard and their diplomatic status empowered.

Alison Onyebujoh – Makubalo

I am currently an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a degree in Law. I attended the eleventh session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva, Switzerland as a volunteer with the Indigenous Peoples’ Center for Documentation, Research, and Information. During this conference, I worked closely with the director of documentation to update online access to all statements given. 

My interest in the global community was influenced by my upbringing in the city of Geneva. This provided invaluable opportunities to observe international law-making and interact with the international community.  As a South African, I have grown up with, and continue to develop a keen interest in ongoing discussions led by the indigenous Khoe-San. I observed that the challenges expressed by the EMRIP representatives are much akin to those faced by the Khoe-San, reiterating the importance of the promotion, protection and fulfillment of the rights of indigenous peoples.

The conference focused on free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous people. To my knowledge, this is a right and requirement pertaining to indigenous peoples, allowing them to give or withhold consent to a government project that may affect them or their territories. Crucially, FPIC enables the communities to negotiate the conditions under which any project will be implemented, monitored and evaluated.

The first key issue I observed concerns the implementation and follow-through on the part of national governments. Often, states do not respect their convention duties because the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is not a legally binding document under international law. For example, Malaysia’s indigenous representative called on their government to incorporate FPIC principles in federal laws after asserting that responsibility for safeguarding indigenous peoples’ rights lies with their government. Similarly, New Zealand’s indigenous representatives called on their government to “honor their treaty obligations”. These statements appeared to reflect a disregard across borders for international obligations and indigenous communities. In theory, the Declaration bans discrimination and marginalization of Indigenous Peoples, promotes their rights to political participation,  free and informed consent on issues over land and resources and intellectual property rights”.  Whilst, in reality, these standards do not reflect in the national policy to which the indigenous communities at EMRIP belong. 

In addition, the issue of enforcement is surely a continuous battle faced in all United Nations non-convention agreements. On one hand, the declaration can be seen largely as a symbolic document which requires moral enforcement on the part of member states. On the other hand, the declaration can and should continue to be supported by the international legal community and national courts to ensure the establishment of its principles.   

A personal stand out moment arose during the INCOMINDIOS side event. The discussion included a number of views on the issues of decolonization and transitional justice which both challenged and developed my own knowledge of the subject.

Myanmar’s indigenous representative remarked that in their nation ‘transitional justice’, it cannot effectively be addressed or achieved because there is no formal recognition of the faults or violations committed by their government. Thus, the delegates could not partake in this agenda item which addressed the recognition of traditions and practices on a state level, when their state is yet to formally recognize any wrongdoing. As a result, the speaker simply called for justice from the current ruling administration and military to admit to wrongdoing.  This was a significant moment, as it highlighted a significant concern; on occasion, even the discussion topics do not suitably address the everyday challenges faced by indigenous communities.

Another stand out moment was the speech given by the Ogoni Peoples representative. The speaker emphasized the collective need for the decolonization of the mind. He explained that this meant an active resistance to colonial forces who, despite departing arguable under the guise of ‘liberalization’, maintain subjugation of the minds of many communities. The idea that soft-power is used as a form of cultural imperialism. Finally, the speaker highlighted that only through decolonization of one’s mind can such communities truly regain their traditions and practices and ultimately, their identity. This concept led me to a series of African literature addressing the lingering effects of soft-power around the world. 

Encouragement for anthropologists

Many anthropologists in the Netherlands, sometimes referred to as specialists on indigenous peoples, do not know much about the existence of the international policies being aligned with indigenous peoples in the UN, EU or in the international diplomacy. It would be very interesting for the students and professionals of (Dutch) anthropology to take a look at the Docip website and at the EMRIP sessions on it. There are possibilities to do research in the Docip library and many of the EMRIP related statements and documents are online at their database. I would be delighted to be involved in some exploration of the possibilities of connecting Dutch universities’ education programs to the expert position of Docip and their documentation center.

Conclusion

There is much to be done in the case of the indigenous movement. The adoption of the International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is far from applied and translated everywhere in a way that is suitable for both indigenous peoples and their national countries. Many human rights defenders are being killed worldwide, a lot of traditional knowledge is being lost and the consensual implementation of international judiciary articles is deviating in many cases from what is really meant by the original declarations. Also, a lot of indigenous peoples are missing their right to being represented. The positive side is that a lot of countries take more heed in working together in having the declaration met with the needs of the nations and peoples.

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