The Government vs. the Indigenous People(s)

The governments of South Asia are in a bind. With vocal support being expressed worldwide for indigenous peoples, they do not want to appear reluctant in endorsing the spirit. At the same time, they are concerned that recognition of collective rights, including the right to self-determination, self-government and autonomy, will lead to the unravelling of the nation state. And so, when the General Assembly discussed the subject prior to proclaiming an international decade to mark the cause of all who are indigenous, South Asian representatives mixed pious pronouncements with reservations.

The South Asian States were not exceptions, however. Throughout the United Nations system, while the indigenous people have received unprecedented support in terms of verbiage, there is extreme ambivalence about how far to go with it. This ambivalence pops up, for example, whenever the discussion turns to the troublesome final 's' in 'indigenous peoples'.

"Indigenous activists believe that only when they are recognised as 'peoples' and not as 'people' will their rights t o self-determination and their protection under international law be upheld", says Jordana Friedman of organisation Cu/tura/Survival: "Human rights is not just about the rights of individuals, but about the collective rights of communities".

The Governments, however, refused to go along, both at the Human Rights Conference in Vienna in June and at the General Assembly. Even when the Assembly agreed on 21 December to proclaim the International Decade of the World's Indigenous; People, the `s' was missing.

As Chief Ted Moses, of the Cree tribe, stated in his address to the Vienna Conference, "They have called us "groups", "populations", "communities", "societies", "persons, "ethnic minorities", now they have decided to call us "people", in the singular…. They will call us anything but what we are, peoples".

The Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, established in 1982 under the Commission for Human Rights, is the focal point of the United Nations' activities in the United Nations. A unique body within the UN system for allowing the full participation by non-governmental representatives, the Working Group has made recommendations on the question of ownership and control of cultural and religious property of indigenous peoples. In July 1993, it completed a draft Declaration on the Rights for Indigenous People, an effort that had been slowed down by wariness of governmental representatives on the issues of self-determination, collective rights to territories, and the significance of treaties between Governments and indigenous groups.

The final draft Declaration contains explicit reference to self-determination, and the United States representative, speaking pretty much for all governments, said that it "could not accept the inclusion of self-determination as applying specifically to indigenous groups if it implies or permits full independence generally recognised under international law".

Not even the working group seems to have gone into the difficult proposition of defining 'indigenousness', however. Said one UN official, "The Group has left it to the people to define themselves as indigenous, and it works with whichever group presents itself."

"Participation in the Working Group." says one brochure, "is open to all who view it as an appropriate forum for their concerns, have historical continuity with societies that predate colonisation, conquest and nation states, and wish to preserve and develop their different identities", Here too, therefore, indigenousness remains a grey zone.

According to the United Nations; there are some 300 million indigenous people in the world in more than 70 countries. None of the UN material available comes to the aid of those who want to confirm the indigenousness of the ethnic groups of the middle-hills of the Himalaya. As far as the United Nations is concerned, they become "indigenous" if they make the claim and present themselves before the Working Group.

While some Nepali ethnic leaders have made claims to be indigenous, none are listed as having participated in the Working Group's work. From India, the Nagas are represented, as are the Chakmas of Bangladesh and Veddas of Sri Lanka. The Tibetans are variously identified by many Western activist groups as indigenous, but the Dharamsala government-in-exile has shunned the identification because, said one Tibetan official, "we feel that claiming indigenousness status will undermine our claims for nationhood and statehood". At the same time, the official conceded that Tibetan leadership did not mind being called 'indigenous' informally as long as it helped strengthen Western support for "the cause".

As for Bhutan, its government spokesmen have on occasion sought to garner international sympathy by referring to the Drukpas as the indigenous people of the country, but no such claims seem to have been made in the United Nations, where the term "distinctive national identity" is emphasized.

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