The Indigenous World 2017 provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide and a comprehensive overview of the main global trends and developments affecting indigenous peoples during 2016.
The Indigenous World 2017 comes in a special edition marking the ten years anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The public launch took place April 25 2017 during the 16th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York.
Symbolically, it was launched on the same day, as the UN General Assembly marked the ten years anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Despite some encouraging national achievements, the country reports in this year’s edition continue to illustrate the great pressures facing indigenous communities at the local level.
If national policies are even available they are often not properly implemented, while in some countries national policies are in direct contradiction with international human rights obligations, including the UNDRIP and ILO Convention No. 169.
The country reports reiterate that the main challenges faced by indigenous peoples continue to be related to the recognition and implementation of their collective rights to lands, territories and resources, their access to justice, lack of consultation and consent, and the gross violations of their fundamental human rights.
The issue of extractive industries is once again a recurrent and overarching theme in the Indigenous World. Numerous examples show that both states and industries are repeatedly ignoring the key principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
Mega infrastructure projects, investments in extractive industries and large-scale agriculture are increasingly posing a threat to the everyday life of indigenous peoples and their ability to maintain their land, livelihood and culture.
Read entire Book here [The Indigenous World 2017]
Read about Eritrea below
Since independence in 1991, and aggravated by a political crackdown in 2001, Eritrea has been a closed country run by an extremely repressive government. Reliable data on the exact numbers of ethnic groups, including disaggregated data on the socio-economic situation of indigenous groups, is hardly available. The approximate percentage of indigenous peoples is estimated at between 5% and 7% of the total population. The references to indigenous peoples in this article are first and foremost based on the claim of indigeneity made by some Eritrean ethnic groups, such as the Afar and Kunama. Eritrea is a State party to the CERD, CEDAW and CRC but not to ILO Convention 169. There is, however, a huge gap between the commitments undertaken through these treaties and the government’s actual practice. Eritrea has not adopted the UNDRIP as it was absent during the voting. Eritrea does not have a national legislative or institutional framework that protects the rights of indigenous peoples. The country does not have an operative constitution or a functioning parliament. It has never held free and fair national elections. Rights to freedom of association and expression are severely curtailed. The rights of indigenous peoples are not formally acknowledged, nor are there any representative organisations advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples.
A situation of crimes against humanity
Eritrea suffers from gross human rights violations. In June 2016, a Commission of Inquiry mandated by the UN Human Rights Council published a landmark report which stated that the human rights situation in Eritrea amounted to crimes against humanity. At the time of writing, Eritrea is the only country in Africa in which there is an ongoing situation of crimes against humanity officially verified as such by a fact-finding mission mandated by the UN.
Reviews by relevant UN bodies
Eritrea’s international obligations are frequently reviewed by the relevant UN treaty monitoring bodies or processes, such as the UPR, the CEDAW and the CRC committees. None of these reviews have adequately addressed the plight of indigenous peoples in Eritrea. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples is also yet to come up with a formal report on the situation of indigenous peoples’ rights in Eritrea. In contrast, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (Ms Sheila B. Keetharuth) have made a number of observations on the rights of indigenous peoples in Eritrea. The first Keetharuth report, for example, singles out abuses committed against two minority ethnic groups: the Afar and Kunama. The Afar ethnic group is predominantly pastoralist and nomadic while the Kunama ethnic group is agro-pastoralist. Both groups are marginalized in a number of ways. The rights of these groups are said to have been violated by the government’s policy of: a) encouraging highlanders to settle on land traditionally belonging to lowlanders; b) turning land into State property, thereby undermining clan-based traditional land tenure systems, and leading to competition between agro-pastoralists and new settlers, and c) displacing people from their ancestral land.
Repression of ethnic group identities
There are nine officially recognised ethnic groups in Eritrea, listed here in alphabetical order: Afar, Blien, Hidareb, Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, Saho, Tigre, and Tigrinya. Other claims to official recognition of group identity, such as that of the Jeberti and Tekurir, have been denied.The core values and policies of the government or the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) – which is the ruling and only political party – are nationalistic and fiercely hostile to ethnic or socio-cultural autonomy, given the PFDJ’s history as a national liberation movement.
Eritrea does not have any form of independent civil society organisations let alone organisations advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples. All special interest groups or associations are effectively controlled by the government. There are institutionalised “mass movements” which represent key sectors of society, such as the national associations of women, youth and workers, all of which function as the respective wings of the PFDJ. Even in this context, there are no organisations or mass movements representing indigenous peoples or minority groups.
As noted above, claims of indigeneity or other claims to group identity have never been officially acknowledged by the Eritrean government. One of the earliest claims to group identity to have been made inside Eritrea was that of the Jeberti, articulated by some representatives of the group in the early 1990s. The Jeberti share the same language as the largest ethnic group, which is Tigrinya. In Eritrea, the language and official name of each ethnic group is the same. The Tigrinya is an entirely Christian community. The Jeberti group is distinguishable by its religion, which is Islam, and the distinct socio-political status traditionally attached to this. The claim to distinct group identity made by the Jeberti in the early 1990s was met with draconian persecution against its representatives and no such claim has been entertained inside the country since. All other similar claims, including claims of indigeneity, are now made by exiled activists and political groups.
Among the well-documented claims of indigeneity made from exile are those of the Afar and Kunama ethnic groups, represented by their respective political organisations. To our knowledge, the most articulate claim has been that made by the Eritrean Afar State in Exile (EASE), which is an exiled political organisation of the Eritrean Afar people advocating self-rule for the Eritrean Afar. The Afar ethnic group transcends three national borders, namely Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia, inhabiting the area known as the “Afar Triangle”.
EASE asserts that the Afar people of Eritrea meet the essential requirements of indigeneity, listed by EASE as being: prior occupation of a defined territory; voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness; self-identification and identification by others as a distinctive community, and a situation of non-dominance. EASE goes as far as to articulate its claim by referring to the Afar homeland as the “cradle of humanity”, in which the well-known “Lucy”, one of the oldest humanoid skeletal remains in history, was discovered. In support of its claim, EASE also makes reference to a more recent scientific discovery in June 2016, in the Afar region, of 800,000-year-old footprints believed to belong to a key predecessor of modern man.
The most visible violation suffered by two of the potential indigenous groups in Eritrea, the Afar and Kunama, is their inability to maintain a peaceful life with their kin across the national borders of Eritrea and Ethiopia and, in the case of the Afar, also across the national border with Djibouti. There has been no physical contact between the said ethnic groups living on the borders between Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia, including normal exchange of trade and other social activities, since 1998. This is true in particular since Eritrea remains in a prolonged situation of conflict with Ethiopia and Djibouti, necessitating a complete blockage of their common border. Moreover, due to the extremely repressive political situation in Eritrea, and like other ethnic groups situated along the border, a considerable segment of the Afar and Kunama ethnic groups have been forced to flee to Ethiopia and other countries – in the context of Eritrea’s well-documented mass exodus of population.
In the area of natural resources, the government has entered into long-term mining agreements with foreign companies such as the Australian South Boulder Mining and the Canadian Nevsun Resources Ltd., which are exploiting natural resources on land belonging to potential indigenous groups, such as the Afar and Kunama. Mineral extraction is taking place in circumstances that do not respect the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Of particular importance to this debate is a pending court case on corporate social responsibility at the Supreme Court of British Colombia in Canada, aimed at challenging the alleged complicity of Nevsun Resources Ltd. in the perpetration of human rights violations committed at the company’s mining site in Eritrea. The main allegation relates to a broad range of violations allegedly committed in the process of extracting minerals but not necessarily related to infringements of indigenous peoples’ rights. A partial landmark judgement, against the Canadian company, was pronounced on 6 October 2016. A final verdict on the case is still pending. There are potential issues that could be raised in similar court cases on violations resulting from an infringement of the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
Notes and references
1 Second Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, A/HRC/32/47, 8 June 2016, paragraphs 59-95. See also in general K. Tronvoll and D. R. Mekonnen, The African Garrison State: Human Rights and Political Development in Eritrea (James Currey, 2014; second revised edition 2017); K. Tronvoll, “Eritrea,” in M. Ember and C. R. Ember (eds.), Countries and Their Cultures, Vol. 2 (Macmillan Reference, 2001), pp. 724-732.
2 No UN special rapporteur or other treaty monitoring body has been allowed into Eritrea for investigations.
3 First Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, A/HRC/23/53, 28 May 2013, paragraphs 43 and 77.
4 Eritrea: Constitutional, Legislative and Administrative Provisions Concerning Indigenous Peoples (a joint publication of the International Labour Organization, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, 2009).
5 Ibid, p. 3.
6 Eritrean Afar State in Exile (EASE), Indigenous Rights Policy (2016), http://dankalia.org/ease-policy/ease-indigenous-rights-policy/.
8 “Earliest Footprints of Homo Erectus Found in Eritrea,” 15 June 2016, https://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.ch/2016/06/earliest-footprints-of-homo-erectus.html#AsELpR8hMCGxjtc7.97.
9 Araya v. Nevsun Resources Ltd. 2016 BCSC 1856.
Daniel R. Mekonnen is a guest writer at the “Writers in Exile Programme” of the Swiss-German PEN Centre or DeutschSchweizer PEN Zentrum (DSPZ).
Kjetil Tronvoll is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Bjørknes University College.