UN Indigenous Bill: Why did Bangladesh abstain?

By Zubair Siddiqui*, NewAge, October 8, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

SEPTEMBER 13, 2007 is a historic benchmark for the indigenous people’s movement. It marks the recognition of the rights of the indigenous; after 25 years of struggle, the United Nations passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The document states that indigenous peoples, whose number has been put at some 370 million worldwide, ‘have the right to self-determination.’ In addition, the non-binding declaration sets out global human rights standards for indigenous populations. Article 26 states: ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.’ Another article calls on states to obtain prior informed consent with indigenous groups before enacting new laws or administrative measures.

Regrettably, this is one milestone in the international human rights movement that Bangladesh will not celebrate. The reason is simple: unlike the 143 nations that voted in favour of protecting the rights of their indigenous communities, our country chose to abstain. Our rationale: the terms of the declaration were ‘ambiguous,’ the ‘indigenous people did not have an explicit definition’ and the ‘document did not enjoy the consensus of member states.’

Bluntly stated, the reasons offered sound like excuses to cover up for political interests. Bangladesh has never wrangled on the passing of any international documents that have aimed to promote human rights standards on the grounds of definition. In fact, while the United States refused to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the premise of ‘definitional problems’ we went ahead and signed it. The US has yet to sign the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Bangladesh is a state party to the convention. Obviously, as an independent nation, we did not need cues from other member countries about defining the rights our constituents.

Further, the indigenous bill was the first international document drafted by rights-holders, that is, it involved the indigenous people, supported by agencies such as Amnesty International and approved of by the UN. There was clearly no room for unacceptable standards, ‘ambiguity’ and goals of the declaration. Which member states did not sign on to the document? Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, all of which have substantial indigenous communities within their own territories. What was their rationale? All four countries argued that the declaration demanded precedence over their national laws for the indigenous.

The US has used the same argument of precedence with regard to the Bill on Disability Rights, since it already has its own laws on the rights of the disabled. The four countries have their own national laws which provide a baseline for protecting indigenous groups. Bangladesh does not have any laws or agreements with its indigenous communities on issues of protection. Hence, although it is deplorable that four big players have not signed on to the declaration, we are not in a position to ally with them and use the same rationale they have.

The move not to sign the bill was based on political interests. In all four countries, the present populations are either largely descended from settlers who took over territory from previous inhabitants or who continue to occupy and dominate much of the territory that originally belong to indigenous communities e.g. Inuits in Canada, Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand and the Native American tribes in the US. Signing on to the declaration would amount to recognition of the destruction of indigenous civilisations. Objections were also aimed at provisions on indigenous peoples’ intellectual property, which grants them the right to be consulted on laws affecting them and right to exempt their land from military activities.

The last shines light on why Bangladesh abstained. Evidently, its position is based on the unresolved conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Despite the flicker of hope that was raised by the 1997 peace treaty between the government and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, the last decade has not seen progress. Rather, there has been exponential increase in human rights abuses, continued militarisation of the Jumma’s lands, greater tension between the Bengali settlers and the native population, perpetuation of torture, extrajudicial killings and a greater institutionalisation of a culture of impunity. The legal erosion of the peace agreement in courts has only meant that Bangladesh has been highly successful in making CHT a non-issue. The decision to abstain from a declaration that recognises the rights of the indigenous, that grants them the right to exempt lands from military activities and respects their lands seems then to be a foregone conclusion and one that is shameful.

Although signing on to the declaration would not have implied that it will be ratified and enshrined in national laws, national recognition of the voices of a people demanding their inherent right to life, liberty and resources would have gone a long way to protect the indigenous communities. And in that, Bangladesh, a country that has in the past taken a stand on human rights grounds, has failed its own people.

Further Resources: Viewpoints on UN Declarations on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

*Zubair Siddiqui is a freelance writer.


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