Marching forward

August 9 of every year is recognized as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. It was in 1994 that the United Nations General Assembly took the historic decision to observe August 9 as the day for Indigenous peoples and by this declaration it reflects a symbolic political statement recognizing the existence and rights of indigenous people. The date August 9 was chosen because it marks the day of the first meeting in 1982, of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) of the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. 

After years of struggle in international forums, the issues of the indigenous people are now being addressed in the Permanent Forum of the United Nations and on June 29, 2006 the newly established Human Rights Council voted to forward the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to the United Nations General Assembly for adoption before the end of 2006. If adopted, the Declaration would be the first step towards addressing the rights and future of over 370 million Indigenous people worldwide.  

Indigenous people worldwide continue to suffer from the legacy of colonialism and many of them languish under Countries they have not voluntarily agreed to be a part of. They suffer from historical injustices, as a result of which they have lost ownership over their lands, territories and resources. They are trapped within artificial boundaries created by colonial powers for their own strategic interest, without the knowledge and consent of the people. Indigenous people live in situations of extreme conditions of human rights violations; and the imposition of alien systems have negated and threatened their culture, rights and existence. 

For centuries, the world refused to acknowledge the existence of indigenous peoples and their lands under international law were considered as terra nullis, meaning vacant land, which in the name of ‘discovery’ were colonized. It was only through the International Labor Convention 169 that the existence of indigenous peoples was mentioned; and the UNWGIP was formed in 1982. Even then, governments refused to accept indigenous peoples as peoples having equal rights. In fact in Australia, until the mid 1990s, the Aborigines were considered part of its flora and fauna, and not as people. 

Till date, the UN has not defined the term peoples, inspite of the fact that all rights entailed by the UN are for peoples and not states. Despite such limitations and vagueness, the UN refuses to acknowledge indigenous peoples as peoples and prefers instead to identify them as ‘population.’ At its core, most governments are threatened by the indigenous peoples’ right of self-determination, which if recognized challenges the very foundation of most existing countries. 

Against all forms of hegemonic policies and the arrogance of power, indigenous peoples world wide continue to affirm their right to determine their own political, social and cultural future and to exercise those rights freely without discrimination of any kind. It is the desire of indigenous people to contribute to the diversity and richness of civilization and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind. Considering that the idea of modern states has reached a point of uselessness and that consumerism is depleting the world’s resources, it is inevitable that humanity will be compelled to seek and rediscover indigenous values, ethos and patterns of human organizations. The circle of life will have to be complete.

And so on this day, it is only natural to pay respect to indigenous peoples worldwide and to affirm the vision of building a world in which all peoples are treated equally with dignified respect.