In-depth: Minorities Under Siege - Pygmies today in Africa

Indigenous people and minorities: A global and historic assault

Photo: IRIN
Pygmy women at a UN volunteers meeting on HIV/AIDS in Gbokila on 6 December 2003
NAIROBI, 31 March 2006 (IRIN) - Terminology: Pygmy
Indigenous people living in the tropical rainforests of Central Africa are widely dispersed and identify their groups with a variety of names. For this In Depth, which addresses the problems facing these communities as a whole, IRIN uses the generic term “pygmy”. IRIN recognises there are some who feel the term is derogatory and perpetuates the ethnic stereotyping the community is trying to overcome, but, for want of an alternative generic term to refer to these communities , our report will use the term pygmy.

 


“In every world region, minorities and indigenous peoples have been excluded, repressed and, in many cases, killed by their governments," said Mark Lattimer, executive director of the nongovernmental organisation Minority Rights Group International (MRG) at a press conference in January 2006. The event was the launch of the first edition of The State of the World’s Minorities Report, compiled by MRG with the assistance of various United Nations agencies.

What faces indigenous people and minorities today is not at all new. Throughout human history, the cultures and livelihoods – even the existence – of indigenous peoples have been endangered whenever dominant neighbouring peoples have expanded their territories or settlers from far away have acquired new lands by force. Despite claims that the world has entered a new era of human rights and democratic representation, this process of attrition and discrimination continues today.

The contemporary threats facing indigenous peoples’ cultures and lands – and their status and other legal rights as distinct groups and citizens – do not always take the same forms as in previous times. Although some groups have been relatively successful in maintaining their cultures and gaining recognition, in most of the world indigenous peoples are actively seeking recognition of their identities and ways of life in a context where this very recognition is being eroded or abused at an alarming rate.

Indigenous peoples inhabit large areas of the earth's surface. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), these communities are spread across the world from the arctic to the South Pacific, numbering approximately 300 million people. Indigenous or aboriginal peoples are so-called because they were living on their lands before settlers came from elsewhere. Most indigenous communities have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the national populations where they live. In many cases, but by no means all, they form a minority.

There is no universally accepted definition of “minorities”; the word is interpreted differently in separate societies. Those working to secure rights for minority groups generally describe them as a nondominant group of individuals who share certain national, ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics that are different from those of the majority population. The range of those defined as minorities requiring protection is huge, including groups as diverse as the Roma people of Albania, hill people in Bangladesh, pygmies across Central Africa, the Ogoni people of Nigeria, the Chagos islanders, the Bagobo warriors in the Philippines, Alaskan native Inuit peoples in the United States and Tibetan ethnic groups in China.

Since the early 1960s, over 40 tribal groups have been identified in Kenya alone, illustrating the complexity of uniting diverse peoples whose only commonality is sharing a nation’s territory. The largest group today, the Kikuyu, comprises well over 4 million people, while smaller groups may comprise only several hundred or a few thousand members. How, then, are minorities defined?


Often minority groups and indigenous people face discrimination and human rights abuses with little effective protection from the law.
Credit: Rhett A. Butler/mongabay
The difficulty of definition

The difficulty in arriving at an acceptable definition lies in the variety of situations in which minorities exist. Some live together in well-defined areas, separated from the dominant population, while others are scattered throughout the national community or even across borders, such as the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Some minorities base a strong sense of collective identity on a well-remembered or recorded history, while others retain only a fragmented notion of their common heritage. In certain cases, minorities enjoy – or have known – a considerable degree of autonomy. In others, there is no past history of autonomy or self-government.

The UN has failed to agree on a more precise definition of what constitutes a minority beyond that implied in the title of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which was adopted by the General Assembly in December 1992.

According to MRG, attempting to establish a more rigorous description has been fraught with difficulties: In some cases, the motivation for a tighter definition has been used as a tool to deny certain rights to certain peoples. In the Middle East region surrounding Iraq, for example, governments have justified suppression under the guise of fighting terrorism, Lattimer explained. "In the war on terror, the greatest danger is this tendency by states to justify what they're doing by relation to the support they receive in the US-led effort to fight terrorism," he stated in early 2006.

Agencies such as MRG and its partners focus on nondominant ethnic, religious and linguistic communities who may not necessarily be numerical minorities. Normally, minorities of this nature are among the poorest and most marginalised groups in society irrespective of their number – their status in society is one of second-class citizen, or worse.

In spite of cultural and ethnic diversity, there are often striking similarities between the threats facing minorities and indigenous peoples in addition to their grievances and interests. Typically, minority groups lack access to political power, face discrimination and human rights abuses and have “development” policies – which benefit the dominant population – imposed upon them.

A tenuous hold on land and property

One of the overriding threats facing minorities and indigenous peoples all over the world is the risk of being driven from their land, which is the source of their livelihood, their heritage and often their identity as a people. Many communities have been closely bound to a particular territory for centuries. Yet once their land is earmarked for “development” – such as dams, mining, the timber industry, oil or tourism – they are all too easily evicted with little or no compensation.

Removal of communities from their land – mass displacement of people – is one of the worst consequences of “development” projects that fail to understand or to recognise minority and indigenous peoples’ rights. Development projects such as hydroelectric or agricultural ventures that require large swaths of “virgin land” are notorious examples. Equally, the designation in recent years of areas as national parks or wildlife sanctuaries has entirely disregarded the rights and needs of minorities living on the land. In many cases, international pressure or funding may endorse or finance these projects.

Civil or interstate conflicts also lead to the displacement of minorities and indigenous peoples, and their property typically is seized without compensation. They are often forced to live as refugees or displaced persons for decades, with dire consequences for their cultural identity and means of survival.

The right of indigenous people to reclaim their property is regularly denied. Once outside of their ancestral land, the denial of the right to property is frequently used to stop them returning. Displaced minorities, whether in Africa, the Balkans, Turkey or South Asia, often lack written evidence of ownership – their land rights are seldom recognised or documented. Although indigenous communities have occupied their lands for centuries, long before the current states may have existed, their practice of collective ownership and lack of documentation is often held by governments or outsiders to mean that they have no rights.

Dorothy Jackson, of the UK-based Forest People’s Programme, said the settlements of many pygmy populations in parts of Central Africa “are not registered as distinct entities. They are deemed to ‘belong’ to neighbouring farming communities who are expected to speak for them.” This situation is particularly unfortunate given the historic and continued discrimination many forest people suffer at the hands of settled farming communities. Furthermore, “Their widespread lack of identity cards means that they cannot contact authorities without reprisals, travel freely or register for voting,” she said.

Recognising property rights that would help nomadic and forest communities preserve their way of life is clearly a complex challenge to any modern nation state, where discrete property ownership is the basis of the dominant economic model. Not surprisingly, transient or pastoral communities, particularly in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, are facing governments reluctant to grant them any land rights.

A downward spiral?

The issue of land is emblematic of the treatment of minorities in many states, where for both discriminatory and practical reasons they also lack access to state services such as health, education, livelihood support and infrastructure. These problems originate from and are compounded by their frequent geographical isolation, not to mention possible linguistic differences or lack of familiarity with the modus operandi of the modern world. Without political organisation or representation, they all too easily fall prey to indifference or outright discrimination.

Economic and cultural globalisation and the increasing tendency toward homogeneity amongst the dominant populations in most nations can only exacerbate the marginalisation of minorities. Because indigenous groups live in a virtually parallel state, disengaged from the political and economic life of a nation, it is difficult to see how their welfare and rights can improve without positive action being taken by governments to reverse such trends.

Even the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), set out by the UN in the late 1990s to benefit the poorest of the world in the interrelated areas of food security, health, water and sustainable development, will fail to benefit minorities, according to MRG. The organisation claimed that most country reports being developed as part of the MDG process normally fail to mention minorities at all and that current initiatives towards the MDGs could increase existing inequalities.

“The focus on aggregate results, rapid development and achieving the greatest good for the greatest number could mean that particular needs of the most excluded groups – of which minorities form a major part – will be ignored in the interests of meeting the targets on paper,” said MRG’s Corinne Lennox in a recent report.

Minorities and conflict

When addressing the UN General Assembly in April 2000, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “Most conflicts happen in poor countries, especially those which are badly governed or where power and wealth are very unfairly distributed between ethnic or religious groups. So the best way to prevent conflict is to promote political arrangements in which all groups are fairly represented, combined with human rights, minority rights and broad-based economic development.”

Almost all states have one or more minority groups, and the dominant population’s marginalisation of minorities within their national boundaries frequently leads to conflict and destabilisation. In war today, the targeting of minorities is no longer the exception; it has become the norm. According to the recent findings of MRG, some 70 percent of the world's conflicts have ethnicity or religion as a major factor. A very high proportion of these arise at least in part because governments or members of the dominant population discriminate against minorities or indigenous peoples.

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda is a vivid illustration. The mass killings resulted in the deaths of nearly one million Batutsi and moderate Bahutu Rwandans - approximately 14 percent of the entire Rwandan population. The Batwa (pygmies) made up only approximately 0.4 percent of the total population and were economically and socially isolated from Rwandan society or politics. However, it has been estimated that up to 30 percent of the Rwandan Batwa were killed or died as a consequence of the genocide and ensuing war. Many of the remaining men were imprisoned, and the majority of the community was displaced during the conflict.

The State of the World’s Minorities Report 2006 claimed that Iraqis head the list of peoples most under threat of persecution, discrimination and mass killing. Sudan was second only to Iraq in the report’s rankings; in Southern Sudan and more recently in Darfur, ethnic minorities have been murdered on a mass scale. The report shows that ethnic tensions still grip vast sections of the African continent – nine of the 15 countries in which groups of peoples are most under threat are in Africa. In Angola, Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda and Somalia, different ethnic groups face violence, disenfranchisement and exclusion.

Other minorities particularly at risk include communities in Afghanistan, Burma, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and the Philippines.


Analysts have argued that international bodies have been slow to address violations of minorities or indigenous rights.
Credit: Margaret Wilson/Survival
Exacerbating antagonisms

Analysts have argued that despite recognising the importance of the inclusion of minorities to securing peace, governments and international bodies such as the UN have been slow to address violations of minority or indigenous rights.

Typical causes of ethnic and religious conflicts include the refusal to recognise groups as having a separate, unique identity and the denial of the right to use a particular language, express culture or practise religion. Discrimination in access to education, jobs, land, social services and property inevitably lays the seeds for conflict as people fail to get any worthy slice of the socioeconomic pie. A failure to ensure that minorities have a say in government at the local or national level – and in extreme cases overt state persecution of minorities – may also result in conflict.

When governments fail to protect minorities from the prejudices of other groups in society, and when they directly or indirectly reinforce those prejudices, the likelihood of minorities taking unilateral and violent action to protect their rights is greatly increased. In many cases minorities are so dispossessed and downtrodden that they appear to constitute a limited threat to a negligent or malicious government but in fact they may indeed be ‘sleeping tigers’ – problems waiting in store for negligent governments.

"When minority rights are violated and minority issues ignored, the entire society is really at risk," said Gay McDougall, the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, in early 2006. "Further along the spectrum, minority rights violations may ultimately lead to the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity resulting in the targeting of minorities in situations of armed conflict," she warned.

With the proliferation and easy accessibility of small arms, almost any dispossessed or disgruntled ethnic group can wreak havoc and foment dangerous national discord. Present circumstances from the Côte d'Ivoire, the Central African Republic, the DRC and the Republic of Congo powerfully illustrate this. The ethnic Ijaw in the oil-rich southern delta area of Nigeria have formed militias that are currently violently disrupting Nigeria’s oil industry, demanding a share of the wealth and an end to their sense of economic marginalisation.

Protecting minorities

In recent years, as ethnic, racial and religious tensions have escalated – and threatened the economic, social and political fabric of states, as well as their territorial integrity – there has been increased interest in issues relating to minorities.

Prior to the creation of the UN, the system for the protection of minorities as groups was established under the League of Nations, but it was subsequently considered by the UN to have outlived its political expediency. It was replaced by the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947. These instruments were grounded in the protection of individual human rights and freedoms and the principles of nondiscrimination and equality.

The view was that if these principles were effectively implemented, special provisions for the rights of minorities would not be necessary. It was very soon apparent, however, that further measures were needed to better protect and promote persons belonging to minorities. To this end, special rights for minorities were elaborated and measures adopted to supplement the principles of nondiscrimination in international human rights instruments. The only UN instrument that outlines these special rights of minorities as a separate document is its Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

Special rights are not privileges, but they are granted to make it possible for minorities to preserve their identity, characteristics and traditions. Special rights are just as important in achieving equality of treatment as nondiscrimination. OHCHR has been entrusted with the task, among others, of promoting and protecting the rights of persons belonging to minority groups. The post is relatively recent, having been established in 1993. According to the OHCHR, this form of affirmative action may have to be sustained over a prolonged period in order to sufficiently rectify current imbalances between minority and majority groups.

The creation of the UN Working Group on Minorities in 1995 is considered by experts to be another important achievement to date. The Working Group is rapidly becoming the major focal point for the activities of the UN in the field of minority protection and is also open to the participation of all NGOs involved in minority protection. The UN Independent Expert on Minorities Issues was also recently established. Gay McDougall, who is concurrently executive director of the US-based Global Rights agency, was appointed to this position by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2005.

According to OHCHR, the most widely accepted, legally binding provision on minorities is Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which declares: "In those states in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.”

NGOs play an important role in promoting and protecting the rights of persons belonging to minorities. They are – either directly or through their national affiliates – close to situations of tension and possible sources of conflict. They are frequently involved in mediation, and they are often better placed than the UN to sensitise public opinion at both the international and national level when the rights of minorities are neglected or violated. NGOs can also have a significant impact in the field of minority protection through research and reporting, and by serving as channels and platforms for minority groups who may not have the capacity or resources to represent themselves.


Minority groups often lack the capacity or resources to represent themselves, and so their impoverished status remains neglected by authorities and governments.
Credit: IRIN
Continued and persistent violations

According to an OCHCR statement, many minorities continue to be subject to serious and persistent violations of their basic rights. Experience has shown that neither oppression – applied in defiance of international law – nor neglect of minority problems provide anything more than the seeds of future conflict or, if left unchecked, the partial annihilation of some peoples. Although minority problems may change over time, there is no reason to believe that the groups concerned, or their claims, will disappear unless positive action is taken. Enforced or involuntary assimilation between majority groups and minorities has sometimes been attempted by state authority, but it has often failed.

While Jackson of the Forest People’s Programme has seen “important gains” in policy and legislation in the last 15 years, she admitted that the “situation on the ground still remains very precarious” for millions of forest people, including the African pygmy communities, who are the focus of this IRIN In-Depth.

For Lattimer of the MRG, the global situation for all minorities is both bleak and incendiary: “In every region of the world, minorities and indigenous peoples have been excluded, repressed and, in many cases, killed by their governments. Far from celebrating diversity, far from recognizing the contribution of minority rights to the promotion of stability and peace, many governments continue to see minorities as a threat and, moreover, as a threat to be violently repressed.”