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Rights of indigenous peoples must be respected

10 December 2012
Commonwealth meeting on International Human Rights Day puts spotlight on marginalisation of indigenous people

Indigenous peoples, who are among the most marginalised and impoverished groups in the world, have the right to be recognised and their basic human rights respected, said Karen McKenzie, Acting Head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

She said this at the opening of an expert panel discussion on ‘Strengthened Rights Protection for Indigenous Peoples’ held at the Commonwealth’s Small States Office in Geneva, Switzerland, on 10 December 2012. The event was held to commemorate International Human Rights Day 2012.

The focus on the rights of indigenous peoples is aligned to the Human Rights day theme of inclusion and the right to participate in public life.

In the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), 21 of the 54 Commonwealth member states received a recommendation pertaining to indigenous rights, highlighting the salience of this issue for human rights in the Commonwealth. Ms McKenzie said the UPR offers a key lever to advance the rights of indigenous people. The recommendations under the UPR process paid attention to the need for institutional and legal reforms to recognise the rights of indigenous people, and emphasised the need to promote greater political representation and consultation with indigenous communities.

Professor James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said key issues and challenges faced by indigenous people include land rights, the right to one’s culture and self-governance. He encouraged the Commonwealth to consider how the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples applies to individual countries, and to develop programmes to implement the Declaration, and to ratify ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

The panel also included Simon Madjumo Maruta, Charges d’ Affaire of the Permanent Delegation of Namibia to the UN in Geneva; David Matthey-Doret, Director of the Indigenous People’s Centre for Documentation, Research and Information; and Dr Mukesh Kapila, Chair of Minority Rights Group International.

Dr Kapila said leadership by the indigenous peoples themselves is vital to the success of their struggles. Any capacity-building assistance will have more impact if it is targeted at issues of concern by the respective communities.

He added that international bodies such as the Commonwealth, African Union, and the United Nations can play a vital role in protecting the rights of indigenous people by providing a place where the desperate can go for fairness and justice when individual states cannot or will not honour the social contract with their own citizens.