Saturday, June 13, 2009

Royal Commonwealth Society meeting on Indigenous Peoples

From my introductory remarks as chairman:

Looking around the Commonwealth, there are indigenous peoples in practically every member state from the Bushmen of the Kalahari in Namibia to the Innuit of Canada, yet the Commonwealth has no regular discussion analogous to the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, no statement corresponding to the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and no mechanism corresponding to the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One wouldn’t expect the Commonwealth Secretariat to duplicate these processes, but perhaps to react to them when they deal with member states. In the last five years the Special Rapporteur has visited and reported on Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, and has produced a series of urgent appeals on Bangladesh, India and Tanzania. All this material goes to the Human Rights Council and feeds into the Universal Periodic Review process, but it seems to make no impact on the work of the Commonwealth Secretariat or the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

Note on the meeting by Ian Orr of BioDiplomacy:

Spotlight on Indigenous Peoples

Chaired by Lord Avebury with:

- Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, Yanomami Spokesperson

- Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International

- Purna Sen, Head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat

- Ina Hume, Campaigner and Participatory Media Practitioner

There was a full audience despite the tube strike, with many students. The evening started with a short and disturbing film Mine – story of a sacred mountain on the Dongria Kondh tribe in the Niyamgiri Hills, whose lands have been invaded by the bauxite-hungry Vedanta Resources based in London. Narrated well by Joanna Lumley ( )

Then there were short presentations by the panel. Davi Yanomami spoke at one side with an interpreter from his Portuguese. There was an impressive contribution from Dr Purna Sen ( ), the Head of Human Rights in the Commonwealth Secretariat (but she only has 2 staff). Lord Avebury invited me to ask the first of two questions I had emailed in advance :

“A - People move. When can those who colonise be counted as indigenous people, for instance Maoris and Chagossians? Should it make a difference that the Maoris moved freely while the Chagossians were involuntary colonisers (through the slave trade from East Africa and Madagascar) of French-owned copra plantations?”

This got a particularly thoughtful reply from Stephen Corry, the Director of Survival – He said there were no agreed definitions of “indigenous people” (though some were attempted in ILO Convention 169) Three elements were important. One was the time that people had been the occupants of the land and their development of a distinctive way of life; second was whether they have subsequently been oppressed/ their way of life threatened by the political and military power of later arrivals or a larger nation state; third was their own self-identification as a distinctive people. He and other speakers condemned the UK government’s appalling treatment of Chagossians. Someone suggested that Chagossian refugee groups had so far not had much contact with indigenous peoples’ groups and wondered if that might be a useful avenue to explore.

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