Today is August 9, the International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples. The day was chosen by the UN to commemorate the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations held in Geneva, Switzerland in 1982. This day is marked worldwide with different themes to highlight the achievements as well as threats and discrimination Indigenous Peoples face every day in their struggles for survival. The theme this year is ‘COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples’ resilience’. The COVID-19 pandemic has already posed a grave health threat to the world's Indigenous Peoples as they already experience poor access to essential healthcare services. Indigenous Peoples globally are seeking their own solutions to this pandemic. Dev Kumar Sunuwar caught up with Francisco Cali Tzay, the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples who discussed COVID-19’s impacts on Indigenous communities. Here is the exclusive interview with Cali Tzay on the occasion of the International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples.
Q. First of all, Congratulations for being appointed as New UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples. This year’s theme of International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples is: COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples’ resilience.” Right on the occasion of your appointment as special rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, resulting vulnerability to the world's indigenous populations. Numerous cases of human rights violations during COVID-19 was reported in media, you also received a number of reports, as you had sought inputs of Human Rights violations of Indigenous Peoples during this pandemic. What is your observation on violation of Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples around the world?
Francisco: Well, you know that many international instruments of human rights state that right of Indigenous peoples enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health without discrimination, but unfortunately in reality there is big gap in recognition and indigenous peoples are living at the moment. Specially COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t discriminate anybody. But the impact is going to be different. Because It is going to effect the most vulnerable people among which are the indigenous peoples. That is what we saw at this moment. What I also saw, not COVID-19, but it is the state which has violated the human rights of Indigenous Peoples. States are taking advantages of COVID-19 and have declared the state of emergency without prior consultation with Indigenous Peoples. Also that companies are extracting all minerals, have continued their works without taking any measures to prevent the spreading of COVID-19. Therefore, Indigenous Peoples territories are in danger of pandemic. Similarly, some states are taking advantage of COVID-19 to criminalize indigenous peoples struggles for defending their rights. Previously, in the name of imposing anti-terrorism law, while this time, states are making excuses of preventing to spread COVID-19 and have imposed law especially targeting indigenous peoples’ human rights defenders. Also that Indigenous Peoples have been deprived of accessing education. Because Indigenous peoples were affected of not having education appropriate to their culture and not in their language. During this COVID-19 pandemic, the formal education is provided through virtual means, but as majority of indigenous peoples don’t have access to internet, they have been deprived of having access to formal education either. There are several other rights of indigenous peoples which have been violated during COVID-19.
Previously, in the name of imposing anti-terrorism law, while this time, states are making excuses of preventing to spread COVID-19 and have imposed law especially targeting indigenous peoples’ human rights defenders.
Q. You rightly said that it is not only Indigenous Peoples, but all sections of society are widely affected by COVID-19, but you also said that Indigenous Peoples need to be given priority during such pandemic, why do they need to be given priority?
Francisco: Well, United Nation has recognized that Indigenous peoples are among the highest risk and experienced the highest degree of socio-economic marginalization. Therefore, they are required of specific attention. Similarly, historically, indigenous peoples have been suffering from structural discrimination, racism and also economic injustices in the society. The COVID-19 showed the reality that indigenous peoples are living historically. Health services are unavailable for indigenous peoples who are living far away in rural areas where it takes hours and hours for them to reach health centers in urban area. The vulnerability that indigenous peoples are facing today need special attention and priority attention during this pandemic. It showed that any novel pandemic is going affect very strongly to the community. I believe that indigenous peoples are suffering the most at this moment, and also that there is likely that some communities are going to disappear completely, as their population is going to be diminished because of impact of COVID-19. It is therefore why Indigenous peoples need to be given priority attention during this pandemic.
You also said that one of the human rights of indigenous peoples that has been violated is, their health rights’, as media practitioner, we also believe that indigenous peoples’ right to health information in their language have been violated. In this regard, if you have to lists down 5-major common rights of world indigenous peoples which have been violated during COVID-19 Pandemic?
Francisco: I think there are not any single rights of indigenous peoples that have not been violated at this moment. One of major right that have been violated is their health rights, criminalization of indigenous peoples’ human rights defenders is another one. Similarly, right to education, right to respect indigenous peoples land, territories and natural resources including the respect of indigenous peoples’ right to spirituality. I am not saying that all the religion and also not that all Churches are discriminating the right to spirituality of indigenous peoples. In some cases, some Churches which are more radical have taken the advantages of COVID-19 and violated the rights of indigenous peoples, blaming that they are responsible of the pandemic as they have not believed to their god. Likewise, indigenous peoples right to self-determination and autonomy also have been violated during this moment.
There are not any single rights of indigenous peoples that have not been violated at this moment. One of major right that have been violated is their health rights, criminalization of indigenous peoples’ human rights defenders is another one.
In your statement issued on OHCHR website in relation to COVID-19 pandemic, you raised concerns over the devastating impact the COVID 19 pandemic is having on Indigenous Peoples. And you also said that indigenous peoples are affected always not ‘health threat’ but others, what other challenges or threats, faced by Indigenous Peoples?
Francisco: Besides, health threat, indigenous peoples are facing the threat to full security, also the trans-border movement, education, spirituality, inter-family violence, forced displacement and movement.
Q. By the way, when you sought inputs from indigenous peoples and stakeholders about human rights violations of indigenous peoples during COVID-19, I guess the states and state authorities also submitted inputs, did you also receive any reports which includes, policies, plans, programs or urgent services that states introduced to address the need of indigenous peoples, during pandemic?
Francisco: Yes, I saw some 7 or 8 countries such as Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Sweden to name a few, which have taken measures for indigenous peoples.
Q. You said it is the states which have involved in violating the human rights of indigenous peoples during COVID-19, what recommendations do you give for states, including UN Agencies for ensuring indigenous peoples rights in relation of COVID 19?
The COVID-19 doesn’t give states a green light to violate the rights of indigenous peoples which have been recognized in several international human rights instruments. States have obligation to respect all international human rights instruments related to indigenous peoples that they have been ratified or signed by them. States also have to work together with indigenous peoples to confront COVID-19.
Francisco: States need to take indigenous peoples into account when they are introducing programs targeting indigenous peoples during pandemic, especially adequate measures need to be taken in their language and appropriate to their culture. The states have to make sure that any work plans introduced to confront COVID-19 has to be in line with indigenous peoples’ culture. Also that they have to stop giving license to the transnational companies extracting minerals and other natural resources and make sure that they respect free prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples. The COVID-19 doesn’t give states a green light to violate the rights of indigenous peoples which have been recognized in several international human rights instruments. States have obligation to respect all international human rights instruments related to indigenous peoples that they have been ratified or signed by them. States also have to work together with indigenous peoples to confront COVID-19. This time, indigenous peoples have demonstrated to the international communities that while practicing their self-determination or autonomy, they are able to confront any problems that are coming from outside of their communities. They also have shown that they are able to produce adequate food and ensure their security. Therefore, states should work together and unified manner during crisis.
Q. We talked a lot about COVID-19, we also want to listen your plan of actions, during your tenure as Special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, what are you going to do during your tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Indigenous Peoples, to ensure the rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous Peoples?
Francisco: I am going to work specifically in the areas of large scale agriculture and deforestation taking place in the land and territories of indigenous peoples, particularly focusing—palm oil, sugar plantation etc. which is one of the issues that I am going to work next year. Similarly, I also have work plan to see what is the consequences of climate change for indigenous peoples, also to see the impact of criminalization, arbitral detention and other cruel and human degrading treatment and punishment taken against indigenous peoples and human rights defenders of indigenous peoples. I also want to see the good practices and lesson learns in the design of conduct of cultural-environment, social impact assessment in relation to development projects in the land and territories of indigenous peoples. Next year, it is the 20th anniversary of creation of the mandate special rapporteur on the rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, therefore, I also would like to see what rights of indigenous peoples have been achieved during these 20 years with the works of special rapporteur. I believe, that my three predecessors, did really tremendous works in the areas of indigenous peoples rights and fundamental freedom. Therefore, there is a need to systematize all the works and see what achievements have been made of their works. It is important to look back and assess the works so far done. Situation like this crisis, we have put too much attention to combat the COVID-19 and we have put some issues aside that are important for indigenous peoples. So that is something I am willing to do during my tenure as Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
My three predecessors, did really tremendous works in the areas of indigenous peoples rights and fundamental freedom therefore, there is a need to systematize all the works and see what achievements have been made of their works, that is something I am willing to do during my tenure as Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Q. If you have anything that you want to emphasize on any point that I haven’t asked you and you want to share.
Francisco: We used to say that we are victim of injustice, pandemic, victim of this and that, but I believe that it is also time to show our strength as indigenous peoples also the time to show our pride of being indigenous, not only to resist but also to give some solutions to the problems. I also believe what we have to see is, not only getting recognized of rights of indigenous peoples in the international arena but we have been the subject of the struggle. Today, we are the subject of the history, because we are showing to the world that indigenous peoples are not only strong but also are proud to be indigenous peoples and show that we are able and capable to overcome any pandemic or crisis, survive and secure our food to create a food security.
Q. At last, I would like to request you give message to the world’s indigenous peoples on the occasion of international day of world indigenous peoples.
Francisco: we have to take advantage of celebration of International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples, my message is, we are strong enough to confront COVID 19. We have to be proud of our culture, language, our identity. Therefore, I believe that UN International Day of World’s indigenous Peoples has to be taken by Indigenous peoples as our own day and celebrate. Of course today because of COVID-19 pandemic, we are not able to have big gatherings as we used to have in previous years, but at least we have to use available technologies to express our happiness for having this day to show international communities that we are here and will be here no matter of COVID-19.
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