Kathryn Cameron Porter has long worked for the rights of indigenous populations. These diverse groups have endured ongoing human rights violations; on International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, 2005, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan remarked, “We recall the tremendous challenges which so many indigenous peoples face, ranging from unacceptable levels of poverty and disease to dispossession, discrimination, and denial of basic human rights.” LCHR is striving through strategic campaigns to relieve the plight of indigenous populations.
Indigenous peoples from Vietnam’s Central Highlanders to North America’s Native Americans to Australia’s Aborigines share a history of hardships. Throughout the centuries these groups have experienced systematic suppression – they have been victims of colonization and have been forcibly removed from their native lands, marginalized at the fringe of society, disenfranchised, and in some cases, willfully exterminated through traditional and germ warfare.
José Martinez Cobo, who served as a UN Special Rapporteur on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations, defined indigenous peoples this way:
“Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a state structure which incorporates mainly national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant.”
The 1994 Draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoplesincludes language to protect the cultural, civil, and political rights of indigenous groups. It states, in part, “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their legal systems, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State” (Article 4). Also, “Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and to full guarantees against genocide or any other act of violence…. In addition, they have the individual rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person” (Article 6).
The Declaration goes on to include protections for indigenous groups’ religious practices, their tribal lands, their customs and their identity. Unfortunately, certain peoples’ rights as defined by the UN are not respected by the governments of the countries where they reside. Some governments, consumed with the idea of establishing a strong national identity, do not acknowledge the existence of ethnic minorities. For instance, in Egypt, the Coptic Christian community is recognized only as a religious minority, but it is also an ethnically distinct group descended from ancient Egyptians. In other places, like Vietnam, ethnic minorities living in the Central Highlands face high levels of poverty, along with a lack of access to basic education and healthcare services. In Thailand, the Yellow Leaf people, a nomadic tribe who inhabit the rainforest, face near extinction because agriculture and logging have destroyed the land they depend on for their continued existence.
Indigenous peoples need vigorously enforced provisions to protect them from forces which continue to destroy their culture. They need arable land, access to healthcare facilities and schools, legal safeguards to prevent official or unofficial discrimination against them, and freedom to practice their customs and religious beliefs to continue their way of life.