Fight for indigenous rights in Bangladesh continues

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted on September 13, 2007 at the 61st session of the General Assembly in the UN headquarters, New York City, United States. The UNDRIP is a landmark accomplishment for the member-states of the UN recognising the rights of the world’s indigenous population. The declaration addresses both individual and collective rights, cultural rights and identity, rights to education, health, employment, language and others. It outlaws discrimination against the indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them. It also ensures their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic, social and cultural development. The declaration explicitly encourages harmonious and cooperative relations between the states and indigenous peoples.

The historical subjugation and injustices faced by these peoples, systematic exploration of their lands, territories and resources, non-recognition of their distinct identities, traditions, cultures and customs, lack of political participation and engagement in decision-making, and denial of access to basic services were, among others, compounding factors that motivated the member-states to be engaged in the two-decade-long negotiation for framing the declaration.

During its adoption, the then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warmly welcomed the declaration, calling it “a triumph for indigenous peoples around the world.” He further noted that “this marks a historic moment when UN Member States and indigenous peoples reconciled with their painful histories and resolved to move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all.”

As we step in the 10th year since the UNDRIP was adopted by the General Assembly, we must recognise that the declaration is the most comprehensive international agreement on the rights of indigenous peoples. The four countries (United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) that voted against the declaration have reversed their position, and now support the declaration. Bangladesh is one of the 11 countries that abstained and it has not changed its position yet. Nevertheless, at the domestic level, its top political leadership has promised several times to work together with the indigenous communities for the implementation of the UNDRIP.

It is estimated that there are approximately 370 million indigenous peoples in the world, belonging to 5,000 different groups spread over almost 90 countries. It is believed that 70 percent of the world’s indigenous peoples live in Asia. According to Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, in Bangladesh, there are around three million indigenous people living both in the plains and the hills.

Over the years, the indigenous communities’ struggle for their rights got the attention of the country’s media and civil society organisations, and to some extent, support from mainstream political parties, mainly the Leftists. On the other hand, the government has also taken some positive steps for the betterment of the indigenous people (although it prefers to use the term “ethnic minority”), and recognised their rights through different plans and policy statements, including the Education Policy, the Tribal Health, Nutrition and Population Plan (THNPP), Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institution Act 2010, National Women Development Policy 2011, Amendment of the CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act of 2001, etc. It also took steps to establish CHT Complex in Dhaka, conduct language surveys, and introduce mother tongue-based pre-primary education in five indigenous languages. However, proper implementation of these steps and policies remains a challenge.

The 7th Five Year Plan (FY 2016-2020) rightly illustrates the existing status of the indigenous people by stating “The ethnic communities in Bangladesh are the most deprived of economic, social, cultural and political rights, mainly due to their ethnic status. Ethnic identities are creating barriers to ethnic minority people’s inclusion in wider social networks” (Planning Commission 2015). Lack of proper recognition in the constitution, non-recognition of their traditional and customary land rights, denial of access to justice, lack of proper representation in the decision-making, etc., are also some of the problems facing these communities.

In recent years, members of the indigenous communities have faced widespread land alienation and different forms of violence and harassment. The recent arson attacks in Longadu, alleged extrajudicial killing of Romel Chakma, the forest department’s declaration of part of Madhupur as reserve forest, Khasi people’s land disputes in Sylhet’s Nahar Punjee, and the case of Santal farmers of Sahebganj-Bagda Farm area are some vivid examples. These incidents show the vulnerability of the indigenous people.

The CHT Accord, signed in 1997, is considered one of the constructive measures taken by the government to address the socio-economic and political problems of CHT. However, despite repeated promises by successive governments, a full implementation of the accord has proven to be elusive. Major provisions of the accord, including land disputes resolution, withdrawal of temporary military camps, and devolution of power to the local bodies, are yet to be fulfilled.

In the 7th Five Year Plan, the government expressed its “strong commitment” to consider implementing UNDRIP and ratifying ILO Convention no. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Almost the same words were used in the 6th Five Year Plan. Unfortunately, no significant changes have been noticed on the ground. We want to believe that this time the government will come forward to make good on its promises.

Currently, Bangladesh is on its way to develop the National Action Plan for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Until now, the indigenous people haven’t been consulted and engaged in this process, although a meaningful engagement in national development is one of the major components of the UNDRIP. Also, the spirit of the sustainable development agenda 2030 is “leave no one behind”.

So it’s really important that the indigenous people of the country are engaged in the SDGs, their voices are heard, and their rights are respected, protected and fulfilled in spirit of the UNDRIP.

Source: The Daily Star

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