WCIP Amidst Indigenous Peoples’ High Hopes

By Jiten Yumnam 

Indigenous peoples across the lush green forests, serene waters, majestic hills and expanse of ice and plains in all four corners of the world behold high optimism as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) approaches in September 2014 at the UN. Ever since indigenous peoples first walked down the corridors of the United Nations, much water flows down with marvellous achievement for them. Indigenous peoples overwhelmingly rejoiced with the historic adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the year 2007 by the UN General Assembly, the setting of UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, EMRIP and UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, as a living document and processes to enliven the spirits and aspirations of their ancestors to live freely in their land guided by their indomitable spirits, wisdom and will.

Listening to the winds of change in deep forest, and the roar of waves crashing in far indigenous territories, there’s tell tale indications indigenous peoples today endure far deeper challenges, with experiences of subduing right to self determination, political repression, introduction of false climate change solutions, development aggression in their land and territories. A serious introspection is urgent to ponder if the upcoming conference will ever deliver the high aspirations of indigenous peoples worldwide, increasingly pushed into the brink of survival. One wonders, what expectations should indigenous peoples in Manipur in India’s North East behold as they continue to experience State terrorism and wide impunity, discrimination, expropriation of their land, resources in the hand of Indian Government and further violence of annihilation of their history, their spirits and their self determination to live as nations and free peoples over their land and territories?

What will be the expectations of the WCIP from indigenous communities struggling against colossal dams such as 1500 MW Tipaimukh Dam, 105 MW Loktak HEP Projects, Chakpi Dam and oil exploration in Manipur [1] that will entail widespread devastations? What will be the expectation of communities affected by policies such as Manipur Hydroelectric Power Policy 2012 that aims to build mega dams all over the rivers of Manipur and the Manipur Loktak Lake protection Act, 2006 that conscripts indigenous peoples’ traditional rights in Loktak wetlands? Certainly, indigenous communities affected by such militaristic development onslaught will have an expectation of their voices being heard, of their rights being recognized and their future being safeguarded, of ending discrimination, through probably, recommendations for stern action by states like Government of India, to end such insensitive development onslaught in indigenous territories.  

A gathering in honor of Indigenous Peoples' day in Manipur, India

A gathering in honor of Indigenous Peoples' day in Manipur, India

One of the most pressing challenges is the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples itself and effectiveness of UN Human Rights bodies in protecting and advancing indigenous peoples’ intrinsic rights. The provision on right to self determination, a fundamental right that transcends all provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other major International Human Rights agreements, is increasingly being arbitrated in an aggressive form, some situations assuming severe and inhumane proportions. In Manipur, self determination efforts of indigenous peoples are crushed with brute forms of extensive militarization, with promulgation of emergency laws that derogates rights which cannot be suspended, even in the most dire situations.  The application of the 1958 Armed Forces Special Powers Act, with wide powers and immunity to Indian Armed Forces, has led to arbitration of non derogable fundamental rights, such as “right to life” in Manipur. In conflict situations around the world, indigenous peoples are forced to battle each moment for their survival. What will be the aspirations of our people, where our youths are mercilessly tortured and silenced, where our women are even raped and murdered for defending their right to self determination over our land and future? A strong decision to end persisting violations and denial of justice to indigenous victims of rights violations is critical in WCIP outcome.

The violation of self determination of indigenous peoples is lucid clear in the pattern of aggressive push of corporate led development and associated militarism. The forces of economic globalization and the corporate greed with strong political patronage further threatened their survival. The world currently descends into an alarming phase where indigenous peoples’ last remaining frontiers, land, forest, rivers and all other resources are perceived as profit source and targeted for insatiable greed by the State, Corporate bodies and all those who work in tandem with them. In Manipur, the definition of development priorities continues to be defined by international financial institutions, such as World Bank and Asian Development Bank, which promoted enabling environment for private business rather than communities in an unaccountable process. Such process lacks a full scale impact appraisal and upsets the fragile ecological integrity. The adherence to UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, 2007 (UNDRIP) and other human rights standard is weak.  

The lack of adherence and non implementation of such recommendations of UN human rights bodies is clearly another serious challenge, which need be seriously addressed in the upcoming World Conference. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and other human rights bodies had recommended on specific adverse situations in indigenous peoples’ territories. The ongoing Mapithel dam construction in Manipur, with heavy militarization despite the recommendation of UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples to the Government of India, is a clear signs of discrimination against indigenous peoples of Manipur and disregard of recommendations of the UN human rights bodies [2]. The recommendation of the UN CERD Committee to repeal the infamous Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 remains unimplemented [3]. Further, the non recognition of indigenous peoples by states such as India hinders recognition of their rights and rightful involvement in all decisions affecting their land and lives.  

One wonders if the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples will lead to renewed rethinking of the political suppression and repression of indigenous peoples’ rights in conflict situations around the world, such as in Manipur and to ensure a full recognition of their right to self determination and to end all mindless brutalities and all forms of state terrorism? Will the World conference lead to renewed vigour among corporate bodies and their financers to review their modus operandi and current unsustainable development model that perceives indigenous peoples land, territories and resources and ultimate sources of economic prosperity rather than provider of life and which also rigidifies inequality and spread violence, conflict and miseries all around. Will there ever be a realization that the current development model has led to multiple crises all over, such as the deepening climate crisis and increased land grabbing, both of which have undermined indigenous peoples’ cultures and traditions and threatened their survival. Will there be renewed emphasis to recognize the intrinsic role of indigenous peoples in nurturing the health of our mother earth through their traditional knowledge, cultures, spirituality and low consumption oriented way of life? Will there be an adept listening to the voice of those struggling with their lives to defend their land, their tradition, cultures and the future of their land and generations?

The current global discourse on development decision making and in shaping the future of the Earth is full of contradictions. The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is simply not an isolated process, but rather related and should link to other larger decision making processes happening simultaneously. The ongoing process to define the Sustainable Development Goals in a post 2015 process, the heavy politicking to forge a new global multilateral agreement to deal with climate crisis and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, among others, are marked by alarming processes of exclusion, lack of transparency and unhealthy influence of corporate bodies to push for profit, business-friendly, development goals and agreements, while also reinforcing false development models and solutions. The overt emphasis on private sector led growth as the ultimate model of development in the First High Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation in early March 2014 in Mexico in absence of a clear set of rules for accountability will only deepen inequality and human rights violations. The World Bank, in an alarming development further diluted their safeguard policy for indigenous peoples. Such dilutions are simply intended to facilitate corporate expansionism and related chaos and conflict in indigenous peoples’ territories. Will WCIP contribute in reversing the pervading global alarming crisis and rescind efforts of multinational corporate bodies to rule and exploit our mother Earth?  

"In Defense of Our Land, Forest, Water, Our Rights & Our Future" 

"In Defense of Our Land, Forest, Water, Our Rights & Our Future" 

While indigenous peoples called for respect of indigenous peoples right to self determination and self determined development, other processes are tacitly pursuing development processes that will blatantly reject and negate such core set of rights. Will the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples deliver indigenous peoples’ inherent human rights? The outcome statement of the World Conference needs to bolster the spirits and practices to advance the right to self determination of indigenous peoples, with explicit recommendations on this crucial human right.  

It is extremely key to be sensitive to unfolding realities of how states, international financial institutions and corporate bodies are shying away from their responsibilities from human rights principles and rather enmeshed in perpetrating injustice and undermining indigenous peoples’ collective and individual rights. It is also crucial to remind all stakeholders to political and economic development of the intrinsic and inalienable rights and role of Indigenous peoples in maintaining peace and security, in sustaining the health of the earth. Hence, conferring strong obligations on the private sector to fully implement UNDRIP is critical as an outcome of WCIP.

The WCIP should further lead to advancement of recognition of indigenous peoples’ right to self determination as their only precursor to their survival as peoples. One hopes the WCIP outcome will have explicit emphasis and content on this aspect and further on the importance of states to recognize indigenous peoples’ rights over their land and resources and to address the root causes of their dispossession, marginalization and increasing threats to their survival as peoples. Legal and political recognition of Indigenous Peoples by States is crucial to promote democracy, sustainable development and an equitable global society. A WCIP process that leads to ending mindless corporate expansionism and militarism in indigenous peoples’ territories will find much relevance and appreciation all over. The WCIP is an occasion to strengthen the functioning and response of UN Human Rights bodies to deepen respect of indigenous peoples’ human rights worldwide, such as to end the persisting dismal human rights situation in Manipur. The WCIP is also an occasion for the indigenous peoples worldwide to deepen solidarity and unity in resisting state repression, colonialism, discriminatory practices, corporate expansion and all threats to their survival as peoples.      

[1] Scandalous Mismanagement of Loktak Wetlands, by Jiten Yumnam, Sangai Express

[2] “Mapithel Dam and Militaristic Development”, The Imphal Free Press, 6 December 2008  

[3] UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Concluding Observations, India, 5 May 2007, CERD/C/IND/CO/19


Jiten Yumnam

Meitei People, Manipur