Asian rights group welcomes Pope Francis’s support of indigenous people’s rights

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temiar blockade
A Temiar blockade in Gua Musang - Photograph: Siti Kasim

The Asian Human Rights Commission welcomes Pope Francis’ unequivocal support for the indigenous peoples’ rights of land and livelihood.

It notes that this can go a long way for tenure rights of global indigenous populations while ensuring their food security.

It can also surface possible solutions to conflicts arising out of increasing encroachments and forced acquisitions of land for ‘development’ activities. There can be no doubt that the Pope had these conflicts in mind. He greeted representatives of Indigenous Peoples participating in the Third Forum held by the International Fund for Agricultural Development on 15 February 2017 in Rome.

The Pope said:

“This is especially clear when planning economic activities which may interfere with indigenous cultures and their ancestral relationship to the earth. In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail, as foreseen in Article 32 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.”

The Pope’s mention of Article 32 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples assumes special significance here. It clearly supports the rights of prior and informed consent of the indigenous population over their lands, habitats and livelihood. The rights, well-recognised in international law, are incorporated in a plethora of international treaties. They are quite often held in breach by authorities across the world, as they are not legally binding.

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Article 32 asserts:

  • indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources.
  • states shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions. It is in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands, territories or other resources. Of import is the connection between the development, utilisation and exploitation of their mineral, water and other resources.
  • states shall provide effective mechanisms for a just and fair redress for any undesirable actions. Appropriate measures shall be taken to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact.

The AHRC recognises that the Holy See, under Pope Francis, can play a leading role in building consensus. It would facilitate making the rights of indigenous populations legally binding for the member states in the UN and other international bodies. By assuming this role, a great boost would be given to the struggles of these populations – disadvantaged by their tiny numbers and scattered habitats – even in democracies.

In addition, the Pope’s support could help bring all religions closer together. It opens up the possibility of correcting historical wrongs. It could help by restoring the rights of indigenous populations appropriated by military conquests or supported by religious decrees.

An example of such a decree would be the Papal Bull, issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452. It directed Alfonso V, King of Portugal to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens (Muslim Arabs), pagans, and other enemies of Christ, put them into perpetual slavery, and take all their possessions and property.”

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The position and interest taken by Pope Francis on indigenous people is an attempt to bring the leaders of other faiths on board this discussion. This can be accomplished by recognising, supporting and strengthening the rights of global indigenous populations belonging to all faiths.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) works towards the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights in Asia. Established in 1984, the Hong Kong based organisation is a Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, 2014.

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