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As African Nations Oppose Indigenous Rights Treaty, Stories from Botswana and Rwanda

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, May 15, updated May 16, 10 am -- The fate of the draft UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples remains unclear, six months after it was opposed, first by Australia and Canada, then by the larger African Group.

            Inner City Press on May 14 asked proponent Victoria Tauli-Corpuz which country was now most actively opposing the passage of the declaration. "Botswana," she answered, "especially after they lost of the case of the San Bushmen." Video here, from Minute 32:23.

            On May 15, this case and its aftermath was described by Kgosimontle Kebuelemang. In 1997 and against in 2002, the government of Botswana moved to drive the Bushmen out of Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The Bushmen filed suit, asserting their ancestral right to the land. During the pendency of the case, the San Bushmen received support from, among others, indigenous groups from elsewhere in Africa, from Finland and elsewhere.

    In December 2006 they won the case -- click here for the decision -- but its implementation has proved difficult. What few services the government of Botswana previously provided in the CKGR, including education and health care, have now been curtailed.

            Most recently, the government of Botswana has moved to block a visit by the UN's special rapporteur on the rights of the indigenous, Rudolf Stavenhagen. Asked about this by Inner City Press, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz noted that he has managed to visit Kenya and Tanzania, but that resistance remains. One wonders if he will get to visit the Karimojong in Northeast Uganda, or the Mushunguli in Somalia.


            Rwandan filmmaker Gilbert Ndahayo explained that even the most basic networking by the indigenous in Rwanda was difficult. The reason, diplomatized in a subsequent written statement, is that "the post-genocide government deliberately removed the mention of ethnic affiliations in our identity cards to allow Rwandans to reconcile and put an end to all ethnic discrimination." However, sources say that only one of the 75 people in the Rwandan legislature is a Batwa, and and that this person says very little.

   Furthermore, as Inner City Press has previously reported, during the last presidential campaign, the Kagame government arrested political opponents who made sociological and demographic analyses which are routine in other countries. How these policies impact minority and/or indigenous groups is a matter of some debate -- but not within Rwanda.

            There are other assaults on the rights of indigenous people that are too-little-known. The expanding market for bio-fuels, including from palm oil and sugar cane, is driving indigenous people off their lands in Indonesia and Malaysia, Uganda and Costa Rica. At Monday's press conference, the practices of banks such as Citigroup, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase and ABN Amro were criticized, as not living up to their stated principles. In Borneo alone, 1.3 million hectares currently used and lived-in by indigenous people stand to be clear-cut in the next three years. This is largely for so-called bio-fuels, a response to climate change that, by rote or not, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recently been supporting.

     But as the indigenous reception took place at the UN, Ban Ki-moon was providing answers elsewhere, at the Korea Society dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. His speech, embargoed until 9 p.m., spoke of human rights and climate change. Meanwhile without comment from Ban Ki-moon, Belarus, Egypt and Angola are poised to win election to the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday, and the indigenous, concerned that the production of bio-fuels like palm oil is displacing them from their land, can only hope to catch the ear of Ban Ki-moon.

            Victoria Tauli-Corpuz on Monday asked Inner City Press' question about help from the Secretariat by saying she didn't know if Ban would even meet with them. "I hope we will be able to meet with him," she said. "I'm not sure he will give us the attention." Video here, from Minute 32:23.

   At Tuesday's UN noon briefing, Inner City Press had asked if Ban Ki-moon had any intention of meeting with the indigenous during their conference from May 14 to 25, or in supporting their declaration of human rights, which is stalled under opposition from the African Group and others.  To both questions, his spokesperson said, "I donít have a position right now and Iíll ask for you if there is a meeting planned."

            Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said that after more than twenty years of waiting for the declaration of rights, it is too late to renegotiate the definitions of self-determination and prior informed consent.

            A separate question is whether the declaration, if enacted by the General Assembly before September, as nearly all have said they favor, would be sufficiently enforced. But as  Gilbert Ndahayo told Inner City Press on Tuesday, it would be a good first step. Will it be taken? We'll be watching.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540