19 January, 2020

Asia Regional Workshop for Business and Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples

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(Excerpts from the workshop concept note)

Indigenous peoples are among the groups whose human rights are most severely and frequently affected by business operations such as resource extraction, large dams, large plantations and other activities impacting territories customarily occupied or used by them.

During the drafting of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), violations of indigenous peoples’ rights were among the most reported issues. Four years after the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles, despite their near universal endorsement, most affected indigenous communities are still waiting for the UNGP to deliver any tangible effect.

For indigenous peoples to better understand the current state of play with business and human rights so that they can fully benefit from opportunities afforded by the UNGP and other instruments, the Asia Regional Workshop for Business and Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples was organized on 26-28 July 2016 in Metro Manila, Philippines.

With 33 indigenous peoples and advocates from 10 countries from Asia as participants, the workshop, aside from discussing in-depth issues and updates in relation to business and human rights, also served as platform in defining strategies at local, national, regional and global levels on how best to engage and support indigenous peoples’ work on business and human rights and the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in the context of business activities.


Severe impacts on indigenous peoples

The location of much of the world’s remaining biodiversity, water, and mineral resources in indigenous peoples’ territories means that they are disproportionately impacted by agribusiness, energy and extractive industry projects.

As a result, indigenous peoples are currently among the groups most severely affected by the activities of these sectors. Today, in Latin America, Africa and Asia, but also in Europe and North America, resource extraction is having severe impacts on indigenous peoples’ rights to lands and resources, healthy environment and culture.[1]

Indigenous peoples’ territories often attract resource-based businesses. In addition to oil gas and mining, as highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNSR), this includes large-scale land acquisitions or “land-grabbing,” for instance, for palm oil and other plantations which are displacing indigenous peoples through either forced resettlement or economic pressure. These occurrences are frequently associated with serious abuses of civil and political rights, with many cases of threats to the right to life and bodily integrity.[2]

Deprivation of land and territories, forced relocation, etc. often affect indigenous women in a particularly severe manner and through them jeopardize food security of affected communities. Social changes associated with the arrival of large business enterprises may also increase their vulnerability to abuse and violence and undermine their social status.

The nature and extent of these impacts of the agribusiness, energy and extractive sectors on indigenous peoples is expected to become even more profound in the future, as the competition for the world’s increasingly scarce natural resources, which are primarily located within or near indigenous peoples’ territories, intensifies.

At the same time there have been significant developments in international law in relation to recognition of indigenous peoples’ inherent rights - as reflected in the adoption of UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the UN General Assembly in 2007, and in relation to addressing the human rights impacts of corporate activities - as reflected in the adoption of the UN Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by the Human Rights Council in 2008 and 2011.

Despite the important developments at the international level in the normative frameworks pertaining to indigenous peoples’ rights and corporate responsibility to respect those rights, most indigenous communities remain relatively powerless to make effective use of these frameworks to address the serious situation of rights violations which they face on the ground.

This lack of empowerment at the community level to engage with these normative frameworks is a major obstacle to the pursuit of rights-based engagements between corporate actors and indigenous peoples and leaves indigenous peoples in an extremely vulnerable position when projects are proposed or proceed in their territories.


Seizing opportunities

That said, indigenous peoples have undertaken efforts to develop and voice their joint positions on business and human rights, including the UNGP, and to seize opportunities provided by their near universal endorsement. In close collaboration with Pavel Sulyandziga, an indigenous member of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (Working Group), they held an international strategy meeting in Copenhagen in 2012, and have had active participation on the issues in the three UN Forums on Business and Human Rights held since, as well as in regional fora hosted by the Working Group in Latin America and Africa. They have also engaged in consultations leading up to the development of the Working Group’s first thematic report to the UN General Assembly (in September 2013), that dealt with the issue of Business and Human Rights in relation to indigenous peoples.

Within these processes, indigenous peoples have continuously and consistently emphasized that they are distinct from other stakeholder groups because they are collective rights-holders which creates specific expectations towards the UNGP process.

Still, the overall visibility of indigenous peoples within these processes and the impact which they have had on the ground has remained less than satisfactory. Several industrial nations have adopted National Action Plans (NAP) on business and human rights. However, most of them lack any reference to indigenous peoples, let alone specific targets and robust safeguards, addressing their human rights. Where NAP are in the process of being developed it is frequently done without consultation or participation by indigenous communities affected by the operations of businesses domiciled in these countries.

The ongoing global discussions and efforts towards the development of a binding international instrument on business and human rights have been largely taking place without indigenous peoples’ active participation. Such participation is, however, key to ensure that any future instrument is consistent with indigenous peoples’ rights as set out in the UNDRIP and addresses the specific human rights risks they are exposed to.

Organized by Tebtebba, the Forest Peoples Program of UK, and the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, the Asia regional workshop was supported by Tamalpais Trust, USA, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Denmark and Brot fur die Welt of Germany.

[1]Rights and Resources Initiative:  Impact of the extractive industry on the collective land and forest rights of peoples and communities: A summary, 2012. Available at http://www.rightsandresources.org/documents/files/doc_5915.pdf.

[2]See Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Second Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, OEA/Ser.L/V/II Doc 66, 31 December 2011, available athttp://www.oas.org/en/iachr/defenders/docs/pdf/defenders2011.pdf, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin, A/HRC/16/51/Add.3, 15 December 2010, Para 34.