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Indigenous people in BD: Address individual and collective rights

Published : Saturday, 13 January, 2018 at 12:00 AM Count : 83
Mahidul Islam

Bangladesh is a country of ethnic and cultural diversity, with more than 54 indigenous communities speaking at least 35 languages, where 80 per cent of the indigenous peoples live in plain land districts of the North and South-East of the country, and the rest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) areas.
Historically, indigenous peoples of Bangladesh have been at the forefront of different struggles against feudalism and colonialism, and many members of these communities also took an active part in the 1971 Liberation War of the country as well. In spite of all these great contributions, they remain one of the most deprived sections in all sectors.
Currently, Bangladesh is on its way to develop the National Action Plan for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Until now, the indigenous people haven't been consulted and engaged in this process, although a meaningful engagement in national development is one of the major components of the UNDRIP. Also, the spirit of the sustainable development agenda 2030 is "leave no one behind".
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted on September 13, 2007 at the 61st session of the General Assembly in the UN headquarters, New York City, United States. The UNDRIP is a landmark accomplishment for the member-states of the UN recognising the rights of the world's indigenous population.
The declaration addresses both individual and collective rights, cultural rights and identity, rights to education, health, employment, language and others. It outlaws discrimination against the indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them.
It also ensures their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic, social and cultural development. The declaration explicitly encourages harmonious and cooperative relations between the states and indigenous peoples.
The historical subjugation and injustices faced by these peoples, systematic exploration of their lands, territories and resources, non-recognition of their distinct identities, traditions, cultures and customs, lack of political participation and engagement in decision-making, and denial of access to basic services were, among others, compounding factors that motivated the member-states to be engaged in the two-decade-long negotiation for framing the declaration.
During its adoption, the then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warmly welcomed the declaration, calling it "a triumph for indigenous peoples around the world." He further noted that "this marks a historic moment when UN Member States and indigenous peoples reconciled with their painful histories and resolved to move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all."
As we step in the 10th year since the UNDRIP was adopted by the General Assembly, we must recognise that the declaration is the most comprehensive international agreement on the rights of indigenous peoples.
The four countries (United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) that voted against the declaration have reversed their position, and now support the declaration. Bangladesh is one of the 11 countries that abstained and it has not changed its position yet. Nevertheless, at the domestic level, its top political leadership has promised several times to work together with the indigenous communities for the implementation of the UNDRIP.
However, throughout 2016 and still, present the indigenous peoples have been protesting against governments' plans to expropriate their land in Bangladesh. Thus militarization, land grabbing, development interventions, corporate greed, forestry and energy projects on their inherited lands have pushed the endurance of indigenous peoples to an alarming situation. Since passing of the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, it has been observed that many attacks have been taken place on the indigenous peoples of the CHT and plain lands of Bangladesh.
The CHT Accord (1997) was a constructive agreement, which was signed by the Bangladesh Government and the PCJSS has entered its 20th year. However, even after 20 years, key issues of the CHT Accord, e.g. the Land Commission, the delegation of power to the local bodies, militarization, rehabilitation of the IDPs, etc. remain unresolved. Though the government claims that 48 out of 72 provisions of the CHT Accord have been implemented, the PCJSS and several others claim that the figure stands at only 25 so far.
In order to resolve these aforesaid problems, the government should form an independent Land Commission for indigenous peoples of the plains to settle down the land-related disputes. Articles 6(2) and 23A of the Constitution should be amended to give the Constitutional recognition to indigenous peoples. The Government should completely implement the CHT Accord (1997) as well as the Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act (2001) should be amended. Finally, the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (2015), drafted by the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples, should be reviewed and considered for enactment.
However, Bangladesh claims to have achieved the status of a lower-middle income earning country. But, there is no reflection of this achievement on the lives of indigenous peoples, who still await to be lifted out of the cycle of deprivation of rights and marginalization of opportunities.
The continuation of the existence of indigenous peoples with their distinctive identities in this country is still threatened. When spaces for accountability, rule of law, democracy and transparency in the country are narrowed down, the miseries of indigenous peoples are destined to be aggravated.
However, it is reassuring is that the civil society and media of the country are getting vocal about indigenous peoples' rights as well as the implementation of the CHT Accord. Despite the presence of a prejudiced section among the mainstream population against indigenous peoples' aspirations, a number of support-networks among them have started coming up, though their activities are yet to gain necessary momentum.

The writer is an activist and human rights worker

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