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Indigenous human rights activists should be protected not criminalised
by UN Office for Human Rights
For indigenous human rights defenders, standing up for rights, protecting their land, culture and way of life often leads to harassment, criminal charges, even murder.
“The indigenous peoples of Colombia are at risk of physical and cultural extermination and on the threshold of genocide, because we continue, despite the peace agreements, to experience the systematic nature of the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples,” said Aida Quilcue Vivas, a human rights counsellor of the National Indigenous Organizations of Colombia.
Vivas is a member of the Nasa peoples, one of the 115 recognized groups of indigenous peoples living within the country. She told the Human Rights Council that these continued attacks on indigenous peoples amount to genocide. Vivas was one of the panellists taking part in a discussion on the protection of indigenous human rights defenders during the Human Rights Council.
Panellists discussed the various ways that these “extraordinary people representing some of the most vulnerable communities in the world are additionally endangered now,” said UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif.
“The global challenge of COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting indigenous peoples, exposing … pre-existing structural inequalities,” she said. “Indigenous peoples were already disadvantaged in terms of their health and access to quality health care prior to the pandemic. The crisis has only made this situation worse".
"Reports of increased conflict and encroachment over indigenous land in recent month’s point to yet further negative outcomes for indigenous people. The short and long-term social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are unlikely to improve their lives.”
One of the reasons that attacks and killings of indigenous human rights defenders is so prevalent is that perpetrators enjoy almost total impunity, said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Frontline Defenders, a non-profit that helps to protect human rights defenders.
“In fact, in the past three years, we have documented the killing of 240 indigenous peoples’ rights defenders, over a quarter of the global total of human rights defenders killed,” Anderson said. “A shockingly high statistic, given that Indigenous peoples make up only an estimated 5 percent of the global population.”
At the heart of many of these disputes is land. Indigenous people find time after time their territories and ancestral places are carved up and sold off, often with little or no consultation. Those who resist are brutally handled, with many being left homeless or killed.
Such is the case for the indigenous forest Pygmy peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), said Joseph Itongwa, Chairman of the Indigenous Peoples Network for the sustainable management of forest ecosystems in the DRC.
“Several external threats weigh on these indigenous lands, often marked by cases of land dispossession frequently accompanied by violence, forced expropriations and relocations, land conflicts and expulsions of indigenous Pygmy peoples from their lands, without consent or consultation,” said Itongwa. He called on the DRC government to enforce human rights law, nationally and internationally, for which it is a signatory.
Indigenous people who do try to stand up for their rights, often find themselves treated as criminals, said Vivas. Her organization has documented more than 10,000 cases of victimization and violent acts against indigenous human rights defenders in Colombia, many happening while people are protesting, she said.
“That is why today I also want to clarify and say that because we have had to resort to resistance to enforce our rights, the governments’ strategy is to treat us - indigenous peoples, students and civil society - like terrorists, criminals,” Vivas said.
Thus, States must be held better accountable in protecting the lives of indigenous human rights defenders, said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a member of the Kankanaey Igorot peoples of the Philippines and former Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Citing a report, she presented to the Council in 2018, Tauli-Corpuz made several recommendations for State actions including undertaking impartial and prompt investigations to provide effective reparations to victims of criminalization and extrajudicial killings, as well as enacting laws that expressly support the protection of human rights defenders. She also urged businesses looking to work in indigenous areas to adopt the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, as a benchmark for ethical behaviour.
“There should be more constructive dialogues between indigenous peoples and the states as well as the private sector at all levels from the local up to the national up to the global levels if the private sector, for instance, is involved there should also be processes which they install that will allow for that kind of dialogue to take place,” she said.

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Intensify efforts to prevent further spread of COVID-19 among indigenous people in the Americas
by OHCHR, PAHO, Lancet, agencies
Aug. 2020
International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
COVID-19 is a critical threat to indigenous peoples, at a time when many are also struggling against man-made environmental damage and economic depredation.
In almost all the 90 countries where they live in often remote locations, many indigenous communities have deeply inadequate access to health care, clean water and sanitation. Their communal way of life can increase the likelihood of rapid contagion, although all over the world we have seen inspiring examples of indigenous communities taking measures based on their strong internal organization to limit the spreading of the virus and reduce its impacts.
Those who live in more urban environments often suffer multidimensional poverty, and these harms are compounded by severe discrimination – including in the context of health-care.
In the Americas, more than 70,000 indigenous people have been infected by COVID-19 to date. Among them are almost 23,000 members of 190 indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin. Over 1,000 deaths have been recorded, including several elders with deep knowledge of ancestral traditions. They include the tragic death in Brazil this week of chief Aritana, of the Yawalapiti people.
In this vast region spanning Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, 420 or more indigenous peoples live on lands that are increasingly damaged and polluted by illegal mining, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture.
Despite regulations restricting movement and economic activities, many of these illegal economic activities have continued in recent months, alongside movements by religious missionaries that also expose communities to a high risk of infection.
Indigenous peoples who live in voluntary isolation from modern societies – or who are in the initial stages of contact – may have particularly low immunity to viral infection, creating especially acute risks. Communities and peoples who have been forced off their lands are also very vulnerable, particularly those who live in trans-border territories.
In June my Office issued a Guidance Note on indigenous peoples' human rights in the context of COVID-19. It highlights promising practices adopted by several countries – many in close consultation with indigenous peoples – and emphasises practical recommendations with both immediate and longer term impact on health.
Overall, the pandemic hammers home the importance of ensuring that indigenous peoples can exercise their rights to self-government and self-determination.
They must also be consulted, and should be able to participate in the formulation and implementation of public policies affecting them, through their representative entities, leaders and traditional authorities.
This is about saving lives and protecting a precious web of cultures, languages and traditional knowledge that connect us to the deep roots of humanity.
July 2020 (WHO)
Although people of all walks of life are affected by COVID-19, the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are especially at risk. That is true of indigenous peoples all over the world, in urban or remote areas.
There are up to 500 million indigenous peoples worldwide, in over 90 countries. Indigenous peoples have unique cultures and languages, and deep relationships with the environment. Like other vulnerable groups, indigenous peoples face many challenges.
This includes a lack of political representation, economic marginalization and lack of access to health, education and social services.
Indigenous peoples often have a high burden of poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and both communicable and non-communicable diseases, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and its severe outcomes.
Although COVID-19 is a risk for all indigenous peoples globally, WHO is deeply concerned about the impact of the virus on indigenous peoples in the Americas, which remains the current epicenter of the pandemic.
As of the 6th of July, more than 70,000 cases have been reported among indigenous peoples in the Americas, and more than 2000 deaths.
20 July 2020
PAHO calls on countries to intensify efforts to prevent further spread of COVID-19 among indigenous people in the Americas
Indigenous peoples in several countries in the Americas are experiencing rising number of cases and deaths from COVID-19, and the Pan American Health Organization, in a new epidemiological alert, urged health authorities “to intensify efforts in order to prevent further spread of infection within these communities, as well as to ensure adequate access to healthcare services.”
PAHO’s alert called to strengthen case management using culturally appropriate approaches, and to implement preventive measures across all levels of the health system to reduce mortality associated with COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic poses a risk to the health of indigenous peoples, both those living in urban areas and those living in remote settlements or isolated areas, where access to health services is a challenge and there is often a limited capacity to serve the entire population", says the PAHO alert.
To interrupt the transmission of COVID-19 in indigenous communities, PAHO recommends that indigenous leaders participate in actions to detect cases early, obtain laboratory confirmation, isolate positive cases, and trace and quarantine their contacts.
“Among indigenous populations, either living in remote settlements or isolated in urban areas, some of the risk factors that may be associated with higher COVID-19 mortality rates include malnutrition, insufficient access or complete lack of access to health systems as well as to potable water and basic sanitation, in addition to the existing high burden of parasitic diseases,” the PAHO document notes.
PAHO analyzed the COVID-19 situation among the indigenous populations in various countries. In Bolivia, 31,249 cases and 1,135 deaths were reported. Brazil reported 7,946 confirmed cases and 177 deaths among indigenous peoples throughout the country. Canada had 334 confirmed cases including 6 deaths in five provinces. As of 6 July, there have been 1,534 confirmed cases, including 73 deaths, reported among indigenous people in Colombia, whereas in Ecuador there have been 4,498 confirmed cases, including 144 deaths.
In Mexico, there have been 4,092 confirmed cases, including 649 deaths, in indigenous populations. In the United States, there have been 22,539 confirmed cases reported across 12 areas of the Indian Health Service. And in Venezuela, there have been 152 confirmed cases, including one death, reported among indigenous peoples.
COVID-19 surveillance strategies in indigenous communities should include community surveillance conducted by residents, as well as primary care, hospital, and health center observation, with special attention to reporting rumors of cases or deaths related to fever and shortness of breath that should be investigated to determine the cause and provide prompt healthcare to those affected, the PAHO alert says.
PAHO highlighted the importance of good communication on COVID-19 among indigenous communities, by using local languages and adapting messages to consider local practices and cultures with symbols and images where needed.
“The ways in which messages are transmitted must be validated by the indigenous populations themselves. Images used in documents and on social media should be inclusive and should never stigmatize indigenous peoples,” the document notes.
The alert recommends that health authorities foster exchanges between traditional practitioners, ancestral therapists, and other community members “so that specific measures such as social distancing, diagnosis, isolation, and treatment take into account their worldviews, existing ancestral practices, and contexts. The importance and meaning of traditional medicine for indigenous peoples should also be considered.”
PAHO also notes different strategies are needed for populations in urban areas, those residing in villages, indigenous migrant populations, or indigenous populations in voluntary isolation, “considering the vulnerability and exposure differences, and that not all indigenous communities will be affected by COVID-19 in the same way.”
PAHO is working closely with indigenous organizations from the Peruvian jungle, eastern Bolivia, the Ecuadorian Amazon, Colombian Amazon, and the Brazilian Amazon, represented by the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA).
June 2020
Indigenous populations: left behind in the COVID-19 response, by Kaitlin Curtice and Esther Choo. (The Lancet)
Scholar Annie Belcourt described Native American populations in the USA as having lives that are “challenging and short”. Globally, across countries and populations, Indigenous peoples face a greater burden of disease than non-Indigenous peoples, including cardiovascular disease and HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, and have higher infant and maternal mortality and lower life expectancy.
Their health is impacted by epigenetic stressors of generational oppression and violence, including disproportionate numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, lower educational attainment, and persistent poverty.
Further, health services for Indigenous populations are typically under-resourced with language and culture appropriate care a rarity.
Structural forces limit access to health care and systemic racism and discrimination towards Indigenous peoples can make it difficult to develop trusting relationships with non-Indigenous providers.
The health of Indigenous populations also has a greater vulnerability to the decline of the planet's natural resources, as their way of life is so intimately connected to waters, lands, and forests.
This is the situation into which the COVID-19 pandemic has arrived. The foundations of colonisation across the world that negatively impact Indigenous lives contribute to the spread of communicable diseases, especially on reservations and in rural areas through factors such as small dwellings, multigenerational living, and lack of access to preventive measures such as clean water, soap, and disinfectant.
As such, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionately devastating effect on Indigenous peoples: in Brazil, deaths among its Indigenous population are reportedly double that of the general population; in the USA, Navajo Nation has surpassed New York in numbers of per capita COVID-19 cases.
Even as the vulnerability of Indigenous populations to COVID-19 becomes apparent, they have already been left out of the first wave of relief. Addressing the needs of Indigenous populations is challenging because of their invisibility from the consciousness of the majority populations.
The invisibility of inequities is inherent to the inequities themselves: under-collecting or under-reporting health events prevents mobilisation of concern, allocation of resources, and a search for solutions.
Thus, Indigenous populations are likely to be left behind in the distribution of resources that are in short supply, from tests to personal protective equipment to ventilators and medications necessary for caring for critically ill patients.
A few steps need to occur so that aid to Indigenous populations is not excluded from the urgency of other COVID-19-related efforts. First, all data on disease or death rates must be disaggregated to show what is experienced by Indigenous groups; similarly, disaggregated data on the availability of testing, medicines, vaccines, health-care providers, and other resources used in this time should be tracked and used to ensure distribution meets the needs of these populations.
Data disaggregation should be structured to acknowledge the tremendous heterogeneity within Indigenous populations.
Governments should anticipate the need for emergency resources to support Indigenous populations and should support them as a vulnerable and autonomous group—for example, by supporting containment measures such as limiting travel in and out of their lands, as deemed necessary and appropriate by the communities themselves.
The public should recognise that government-led solutions have historically not been adequate, and make such communities a priority target for individual and private philanthropy. Such giving must first support efforts on the ground, devised and run by Indigenous communities themselves, and any COVID-19-related resources provided should be managed by the communities.
As the burden of COVID-19 increases among Indigenous communities, it will invariably take a toll on elders, who are the reservoirs of language and history. Their deaths would represent an immeasurable cultural loss.
Indigenous communities have much to teach us about how to live sustainably and communally in a time when individualistic efforts seem to trump care for the most vulnerable; investing in their health is an investment in all of our futures. Valuing the unique contribution of such communities demands that our goal with respect to their wellbeing should not simply be that they survive this pandemic, but that they thrive after it.

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