An Aka pygmy woman from the Central Africa Republic. Some pygmy communities are not even recognised as citizens in the territories where they live and have lived for centuries.
Credit: Margaret Wilson/Survival
Preserving the civil and human rights of pygmies is a dual challenge, because before one can address any rights violation, one must first consider the issue of entitlement, or determine whether indigenous groups are even covered by a country’s legal instruments. Pygmies have difficulty establishing entitlement for a number of reasons. In fact, some communities are not even officially recognised as citizens in the territories where they reside. Still worse, entitlement to legal protection does not always guarantee systematic enforcement of rights. Many states that officially recognise pygmies’ rights systematically ignore them in practice. A history of prejudice
When it comes to human rights, pygmy peoples are frequently deprived of the legal protection to which other citizens are entitled. These legal gaps have their roots in a historical tradition of discrimination against pygmies, not only by Africans, but also by European colonists. They illustrate an invidious level of cultural and political prejudice.
Edward Tyson was one such physician and zoologist. His book, The Anatomy of a Pygmy Compared with that of a Monkey, and Ape and a Man was published in London in 1751. Tyson tried to establish the argument that pygmies - as well as mythical creatures, such as satyrs mentioned in Greek classics - were not men, but apes. More recently, Ota Benga, a pygmy from the Democratic Republic of Congo (then a Belgian colony), was brought to the 1904 World Fair in the United States, where he was displayed as an exhibit. Benga, born in 1881, was 4 ft 11 in tall and weighed 103 lbs. He was later caged in New York’s Bronx Zoo, where he slept in a monkey cage. Benga committed suicide in 1916.
The 1988 Hollywood movie Gorillas in the Mist portrayed pygmies as savage gorilla poachers. This is a concept that has never really been questioned, despite the fact that pygmies have shared their forest home with gorillas for centuries without these animals becoming endangered as they are today.
Due to their unique political and economic status, pygmies need specialised legal protection of their human rights.The need for recognition and definition
According to activists, the first step towards legal protection of pygmy communities is to clearly identify and recognise the communities themselves. The United Nations has appealed for specials rights to be afforded groups of indigenous people that are especially vulnerable to marginalisation. Such special rights are included in various UN conventions and declarations dealing with specific issues of race and prejudice, education, rights of the child, etc. These instruments operate both at the international level as well as the regional level, where they are defined often as frameworks and charters.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) was the first international body to take action on indigenous issues. Since its creation in 1919, ILO has defended the social and economic rights of groups whose customs, traditions, institutions or language set them apart from other sections of national communities. In 1953, ILO published a study on indigenous peoples; in 1957, it adopted Convention No. 107 (now called 169). This was the first international legal instrument specifically created to protect the rights of peoples whose ways of life and existence were – then, as now – threatened by dominating cultures. The ILO Convention 169 underlines the significance of self-identification for all indigenous people, including forest communities and various pygmy groups. Such identification has proven crucial to land-claims agreements between the Canadian government and the Inuit of the Northwest Territories, for example.
According to the Convention, people are considered “indigenous” either because they are descendants of those who lived in the area before colonisation, or because they have maintained their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions since colonisation and the establishment of new states. Both criteria apply to pygmy peoples throughout Central Africa.
The Martinéz Cobo Report to the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination of Minorities of 1986 offers further specifics. It defines indigenous communities as “those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.”
The report defines the crucial concept of “historical continuity” as “the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present, of one or more of the following factors: Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them; Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands; Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.); Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language); Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world.”Enforcing rights?
Such legal instruments are decisive in identifying which group is particularly vulnerable and must be granted specific legal protection. However, even when entitled to legal protection, pygmies rarely have their rights defended and enforced.
According to the US-based NGO Refugees International (RI), so far no real efforts have been made to improve the situation of pygmy communities. In many cases, pygmies are still denied access to their original forests; in cases where they have been displaced or evicted from their traditional lands, they do not receive compensation. Activists and observers claim that governments and the international community have ignored pygmies in the post-1994 responses to the complex humanitarian crises in Africa’s Great Lakes region.
RI, however, has identified some positive changes for the Batwa pygmies in recent years in some countries. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has taken a role in promoting land rights for Batwa in zones of conflicts in the Great Lakes Region. In Uganda, employing Batwa as park guides has been cited as an example where respect and recognition have been given to pygmies. However, these are very limited positive examples in comparison with the challenges these communities normally face.Theory and practice of pygmy rights
In the less common cases where pygmy populations find themselves adequately recognised and protected by their national law, the issue of law enforcement is a secondary and everyday problem. Discrimination continues, and laws are ignored for bureaucratic reasons related to poor governance or absence of rule of law as well as for social reasons.
In Cameroon, pygmies are entitled – in theory – to the same rights as other citizens. In reality, in order to exercise and enjoy these rights, citizens need a national identification card. To obtain a national identification card, one must be in possession of his or her birth certificate. Pygmies, whose habitat still consists of remote forest areas that are far from any administration offices, seldom have such documentation. The implications for the pygmies in such a Catch 22 situation are clear.
Lack of documentation prevents people from obtaining formal employment, benefiting from development schemes and social benefits and registering to vote. According to RI, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), “While other citizens are issued birth certificates and identity cards free of charge, Batwa must undergo an involved bureaucratic process. Without these cards, it is difficult to enroll in schools and receive government-funded health care, which are otherwise guaranteed to other vulnerable people in the country.” In DRC, identity cards also define the nationality of the individual, which in turn gives one the right to own land.
Beyond these legal and administrative issues, traditional prejudice may be the major impediment to the respect of pygmy rights. In Ituri district, Oriental Province in DRC, the Mbuti people traditionally traded ivory and game with the Bantu for salt, agricultural produce, iron tools and weapons. However, Bantu inhabitants still refuse to share food or even a bench or to socialise with pygmies, whom they consider “dirty” and “impure”.
Macabre prejudice in the Congo
During the DRC’s civil war, the Bambuti pygmies were greatly affected, with militias targeting their communities, forcibly recruiting them as scouts, porters and hunters.
In the Great Lakes, these prejudices have sometimes taken an extremely violent and macabre turn. During the DRC’s civil war, militias targeted members of the Bambuti pygmy community, forcibly recruiting them as scouts, porters and hunters. The Bambuti also fell victim to local superstition that pygmies have supernatural powers. These powers are believed by some militiamen to be transmissible, either by sexual intercourse – inciting brutal gang rapes of pygmy women – or by ingestion – leading to acts of cannibalism.
“They started killing people and eating them … I saw them cutting up human flesh, then they were putting it on a fire to grill it. I got scared and ran away, not knowing what else happened behind me,” said Amuzati N, a Bambuti pygmy, in an account to the Independent, a UK-based newspaper, of his experience when he escaped a massacre by a rebel group in the DRC.
According to Minority Rights Group International (MRG), such crimes against humanity continue. In addition, MRG stated that rebel groups in DRC deliberately target pygmy communities, who are considered “subhuman” or seen as beggars and thieves by other ethnic groups. The agency’s investigations on the indiscriminate killings of pygmies in DRC found that from October 2002 to January 2003, rebel forces ran an operation in Ituri district code-named “Effacer le tableau” (to wipe the slate clean). The aim of the operation, according to witnesses, was to rid the forest of pygmies.
“It was in the night around 8 p.m., when people began to fall asleep. Once they were sure the village was asleep, they attacked and started to shoot and kill. One ran this way; they shot him. Another ran that way. They shot her – even the women. They then captured the young children, gathered them and held them until daylight. Then they put some of them in a mortar and pounded them to death. They destroyed huts and set them on fire. The people were also burned,” said Sumbula R, a Bambuti pygmy who survived the attack, describing his experience to MRG.
Similar allegations surfaced against one particular militia, the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (Movement for the Liberation of Congo, or MLC), which is active in the DRC provinces of Equateur and parts of Ituri and Kivu. The MLC is led by Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba. Testimonies and evidence of the systematic targeting of Batwa in this region have been reported to the International Criminal Court, the DRC being a signatory of the courts’ Rome Statute. A pygmy survivor of this alleged campaign of extermination was quoted as saying, “Every time I mentioned that I would report this to the authorities, I would be told that I would be killed as well. I still decided to go ahead, despite the authorities trying to intimidate and dishearten me.”
At a press conference in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa in 2004, Bemba vehemently denied his troops were involved. During this event, a pygmy was presented to the press to “confess” on behalf of his people that these accusations were a mere defamation of the MLC. This sudden reversal of testimony led many observers to speculate that the “witness” had been coerced into giving a false statement.
A bleak future?
In countries like DRC, discrimination towards pygmy communities continues. Laws that should protect every inhabitant of the country are ignored for bureaucratic reasons related to poor governance, absence of rule of law as well as for reasons of social prejudice.
Credit: Margaret Wilson/Survival
The culture of impunity continues to exist in relation to different levels of discrimination facing pygmies and forest people in Central Africa. Pygmy populations in Cameroon, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, DRC and Gabon all experience discrimination to different degrees. Even within a single country, communities may experience levels of discrimination and abuse depending on their location and how effectively the law protects them. The horrors of DRC described above may be the result of a widespread absence of rule of law and descent into brutality in parts of that country, but it is also a reflection of a generalised social prejudice that typifies pygmy contact with dominant, nonforest communities.
Liberate Nicayenzi is a member of the Batwa community of Burundi and was a member of parliament in her country’s transition national assembly. She is also chairperson and legal representative of the NGO UNIPROBA (Unisons Nous pour la Promotion des Batwa, United for the Promotion of the Batwa). Role models like Nicayenzi are rare, but increasingly – and in spite of the continued discrimination – pygmies are demanding to be heard, to be recognised and to claim their rights.
The struggle of the Batwa is the struggle of many minorities and indigenous people. In recent decades, governments have admitted that they are aware of the serious problems faced by indigenous peoples living in their territories and of the dynamics that have made them some of the most vulnerable groups in national societies. In some parts of the world, a permanent dialogue is taking place. In other places, direct negotiations between indigenous peoples and governments have been instituted and are moving forward, with the aim of improving relations and guaranteeing better protection of indigenous peoples' rights. Some countries have even introduced autonomous institutions as well as programmes specially designed for indigenous peoples at local and regional levels. These moves are aimed to improve conditions, in such areas as health, housing, labour and education, but also preserve traditional ways of life. Some governments have amended their constitutions and legislation to take into account the multicultural character of national society. Limited progress has also been made in returning and guaranteeing collective ownership of indigenous lands.
Trying to explain the historic discrimination against pygmies in Burundi, Nicayenzi said, “I don’t know which legal grounds people use to exclude others, when we are created alike, speak the same language, worship the same God. But [….] there are people who think they are superior to others. I blame the leaders who only put forward their own interests.”
The challenges facing pygmy communities are happening in countries where democratic and representational institutions are still being created, where respect for anyone’s human rights is often uncertain and where respect for rule of law may be weak or non-existent. For indigenous groups like pygmies, full equality and an end to discrimination remain remote from their daily reality.