BANGKOK (ILO News) – The world’s highest infant mortality rates, lowest income levels, most widespread illiteracy and slimmest access to health and social services are to be found among the world’s 300 million indigenous people, half of whom live in Asia. Wherever they may be, the 5,000 indigenous and tribal groups spread among some 70 countries around the globe tend to have one thing in common: they are the poorest of the poor.
Speaking on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August), Mr Yasuyuki Nodera, Asia-Pacific Regional Director of the International Labour Organization (ILO), underscored his Organization’s concern for indigenous rights in the region.
To this day, the ILO remains the repository of the only instrument of international law specifically safeguarding the rights of indigenous people, the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169). That Convention provides, among other things, that “indigenous and tribal peoples shall enjoy the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms without hindrance or discrimination.”
Over 60 years ago, the ILO became the first international organization to adopt standards wholly dedicated to protecting the institutions, persons, property and working conditions of indigenous and tribal populations.
“The ILO’s original involvement with indigenous populations sprang from the fact that so many indigenous and tribal people had been forced into bonded labor”, Mr Nodera pointed out.
Though the original concern was to protect them as workers from exploitative and discriminatory employment practices, it soon became obvious that no lasting solution was achievable unless citizenship rights, access to land, social protection and health care could be ensured.
Though some progress has been made on these fronts, Mr Nodera insisted on the importance of enabling indigenous peoples to be active partners in development in keeping with Article 7 of Convention 169, which confers on them “the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development … and to exercise control, to the extent possible, over their own economic, social, and cultural development.”
In Thailand, the focus has been on education. Various indigenous organizations and the Ministry of Education have been working with the ILO in recent years to give Hmong, Lahu and Mien children schooling in their own villages and in their native languages.
In parts of northern Thailand, special curricula developed by indigenous partners from community elders’ knowledge of ceremonies, rituals and history are taught alongside the basic primary school subjects all Thais learn.
By giving children the chance to retain their ethnic and cultural diversity and enabling them to participate in Thai society on an equal footing, these innovations, the ILO and the communities themselves hope, will one day be extended to secondary education.