Annual Panel on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (HRC res.10/8 and 51/18)
Tsedenia Gigar Getaneh
Women’s Rights Researcher,
Global Human Rights Defense.
The 54th session of the Human Rights Council convened its annual panel discussion on the rights of indigenous peoples, focusing on the impact of specific development projects on these rights, particularly those affecting indigenous women.
Mrs. Kehris, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, delivered the opening remarks, outlining the panel's objectives. The discussion aimed to assess how development projects affect the rights of indigenous peoples, with a specific focus on indigenous women. It sought to share initiatives from indigenous peoples addressing these impacts and identify best practices for preventing and addressing the consequences of development projects on their populations. The overarching goal was to underscore the importance of inclusive, sustainable development that fully respects the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples.
Mrs. Kehris emphasised that while development projects could bring substantial societal benefits, they often pose significant challenges and disruptions in the lives of indigenous peoples. These projects frequently intersect with critical issues such as land rights, environmental conservation, cultural preservation, and economic empowerment. Importantly, she highlighted that indigenous women are often disproportionately affected by the adverse outcomes of development projects. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure the rights of indigenous peoples are respected when undertaking infrastructure, development, or natural resource extraction projects in or near their territories.
Mrs. Lightfoot, Chair-Rapporteur of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, expressed concerns about the limited advancement of indigenous peoples' right to self-determination since the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Mass evictions, land dispossession for conservation or infrastructure projects, and privatisation of indigenous lands for investment has had negative impacts upon their livelihoods, economic resources, social and cultural identity, and self-determination.
Ms. Flores, Lawyer for the Yaqui People from Mexico, highlighted two major projects in the last decade that had significantly affected the Yaqui people without their consultation: an aqueduct in 2010 and a gas pipeline in 2014. These projects resulted in increased violence, disappearances, stigmatisation, criminalisation, and the failure to acknowledge women's leadership in defending their land. Anabela called for projects financed by institutions such as the World Bank to demand verification of the respect of human rights, particularly when affecting indigenous territories. In addition, she proposed the establishment of a department knowledgeable about indigenous rights responsible for ensuring compliance.
Mr. Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples highlighted the disproportionate impact of extractive industries on indigenous women and emphasised the devaluation of their knowledge when natural resources were exploited without their free, prior, and informed consent. Moreover, he stressed that there was no one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges, emphasising the need for the international community to involve indigenous peoples, especially women, and listen to their voices. This involvement would help preserve and apply their scientific and technical knowledge towards sustainable global development.
Mrs. Quiñones, Head of Human Rights and Development at the United Nations Women Geneva Office and a panelist, underlined that indigenous women were entitled to the same basic rights as all women under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, in addition to collective rights. She mentioned that United Nations Women collaborates closely with civil society advisory groups, with indigenous women leading the way in developing and documenting normative commitments that supported their visionary approaches. United Nations Women's work aims to sustain the inclusion, participation, and organisation of indigenous women. Most importantly, she has acknowledged the existence of indigenous peoples in Vietnam. This is significant, because this revelation starkly contrasts the official stance of the Vietnamese government, as stated in paragraph 5 of Vietnamese report to the CERD committee, asserting that "there exists no concept of 'indigenous people'" in Viet Nam.
During the discussion, various countries, civil society actors and non-governmental organisations took part in the conversation.
During the discussion, several speakers noted that discrimination against indigenous peoples, especially indigenous women, hindered their equal access to lands, resources, and decision-making processes in the context of development. This, in turn, led to the loss of their invaluable scientific and technical knowledge, urgently needed in addressing climate and biodiversity crises. Speakers called for effective measures to fully implement the rights of indigenous peoples and address the root causes of violence against indigenous women and girls. Additionally, they stressed the critical importance of enhanced consultation with indigenous peoples, particularly indigenous women, to ensure their free, prior, and informed consent and their meaningful participation in the development and implementation of projects and programmes affecting their rights and interests.
The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on indigenous communities, people of African descent, and those living in poverty was further highlighted. Among these groups, indigenous peoples, especially indigenous women, faced the harshest conditions. These women possess valuable scientific and medical knowledge passed down through generations, recognised at the international level. They play a crucial role in food production, environmental protection, and food security, and it is imperative to safeguard and promote their participation through increased funding for local initiatives.
Within the development context, discrimination against indigenous peoples, particularly indigenous women, obstructs their equal access to land, resources, and decision-making processes. This leads to the erosion of their vital scientific and technical knowledge, urgently needed in the face of climate and biodiversity challenges. Discrimination compounds when intersecting with other factors such as disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. To ensure sustainable development, governments and stakeholders must wholeheartedly commit to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and uphold their right to self-determination. Policies facilitating indigenous women's inclusion in development processes are vital, and the rule of law is a potent tool for implementing these principles.
Indigenous women's well-being and cultural identity are at risk due to development projects that can displace communities, disrupt cultural traditions, and alter traditional roles. Furthermore, indigenous women who defend their land and territorial rights, and oppose non-consensual development projects, often face severe threats, violence, harassment, detentions, and the criminalisation of their work.
Social disadvantages and violence against women have surged due to climate change consequences and the abusive exploitation of natural resources by extractive industries, with indigenous women and girls suffering the most. Comprehensive measures are required to fully implement indigenous peoples' rights and address the underlying causes of violence against them. Consultation with indigenous peoples, particularly women, to obtain their free, prior, and informed consent, as well as their active participation in projects affecting their rights and interests, is of paramount importance.
Speakers voiced deep concern that development projects disregarding the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples disproportionately harm indigenous women, who play essential roles as caregivers and environmental stewards. This harm extends to the loss of their traditional livelihoods, knowledge, and spiritual connection to their land, potentially resulting in displacement, environmental harm, loss of biodiversity, and ecological degradation. Indigenous peoples offer a unique perspective on development, emphasising a harmonious relationship between the environment and development projects, and their involvement tends to lead to more equitable and sustainable outcomes.
One speaker highlighted the significance of adopting General Recommendation No. 39 by the CEDAW Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, focusing on the rights of indigenous women and girls, as a guiding framework for promoting free, prior, and informed consent. The Human Rights Council holds the opportunity to take concrete steps and set an example by enabling indigenous peoples' representatives and institutions to participate in Council discussions under their own status, especially regarding issues that affect them.
Speakers also sought insights from the panellists on how to ensure the participation of indigenous women in decision-making processes related to development projects and requested elaboration on opportunities to expand successful development initiatives that have positively impacted indigenous women.
Sherly Lightfoot, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, emphasised that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples comprehensively addressed the right of indigenous peoples to development. This recognition went beyond mere context; it was substantive, and acknowledged the profound connection between self-determination and the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. Across the globe, indigenous communities were increasingly formulating their own protocols for consent and consultation, often involving the perspectives of elders, youth, and women. States and other relevant parties should make use of these protocols where they exist. In cases where such protocols are lacking, States should support their development through capacity-building efforts. Mrs. Lightfoot also highlighted various studies that showcased global best practices and provided valuable advice.
Ms. Flores noted that States still face significant challenges in safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly women, during the implementation of programmes. Ensuring free determination is of paramount importance. When companies respect these rights, they should establish communication channels with legitimate authorities. It is imperative for nations to respect the rights of indigenous individuals. The crucial role played by women, often overlooked under the guise of protection, should be acknowledged, and their interests should be taken into account.
Jose Franisco Cali Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, stressed that both States and the private sector should take steps to guarantee that indigenous peoples are consulted and have equal participation in projects and initiatives affecting their interests. A gender perspective should be integrated through State funding, ensuring the participation of women both before and during development projects, guided by experts and as part of the prior and informed consent process. A portion of the funding for development projects should be allocated to indigenous peoples to enable them to preserve their land and empower themselves, particularly women, through capacity-building and other empowerment measures. Commitment to intercultural cooperation with indigenous organisations is essential to developing technical capacities. Indigenous peoples possess their own expertise in managing environmental resources and their development. Indigenous lands hold critical importance for the physical and cultural survival of indigenous communities.
Adriana Quinones, Head of Human Rights and Development at the United Nations Women Geneva Office, finally emphasised the need to support national-level institutions dedicated to indigenous peoples. It is imperative to include indigenous women in decision-making processes, and development partners should ensure that consultation and decision-making processes are inclusive of them. Investing in the translation of General Recommendation 39 into indigenous languages would greatly aid in this endeavor, as it is a valuable instrument for advancing indigenous rights.