GENEVA (ILO Online) - The ILO has adopted the only international legal instrument now open to ratification that pertains specifically to the 350 million indigenous and tribal peoples worldwide: the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169). It has been ratified by 17 countries ( Note 1) and is internationally recognized as the foremost instrument on the subject. It covers a wide range of issues, including land rights, access to natural resources, health, education, vocational training, conditions of employment and contacts across borders.
The Project to Promote ILO Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (PRO 169) was launched in 1996 to protect indigenous and tribal peoples' human rights through legislative and policy development based on ILO standards, and through capacity-building for these peoples. The project is financed by Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) as well as by the EU (Birgitte supplement) and its principal geographical focus is on Africa and Asia.
In 2004, PRO 169 carried out a 3-month Indigenous Fellowship Programme. The overall objective of this programme was to equip participants with some of the skills and knowledge necessary for the promotion and protection of the rights of their peoples. PRO 169 spoke with two participants of the Programme: Yuuki Hasegawa, who is Ainu from Japan, and Tony Khular from the Lamkang community in Manipur, India.
1. You are coming from very different countries.
The situation of your peoples and the contexts in
which your organizations operate are very
different, too. What similarities did you discover
during the programme and what are the major
Yuuki Hasegawa (YH): The situation of our groups is very different indeed. For example, the Ainus in Japan have almost lost their language and now we want to revive it. In contrast, the Lamkang in India still maintain their language and culture, so we can learn from them. The level of recognition of our groups and their rights is very different as well. In India, there are a number of constitutional provisions, which grant certain rights to 'scheduled tribes'. In Japan, there are no such rights. India has at least ratified ILO Convention No. 107 and advocacy for indigenous peoples can build on its provisions. In Japan, ratification is too difficult and we have to find other ways to promote indigenous rights. Generally, our situation is very different, but our goals tend to be the same, and we work through the UN System to achieve these goals.
Tony Khular (TK): Yes, in India we have a number of constitutional provisions and legislation, which recognize our rights as 'scheduled tribes' but not as 'indigenous peoples'. At any rate, the problem is the implementation of these provisions. In both of our cases, there are no national organizations to promote our rights. Through Walter Para, who also participated in the Fellowship Programme, we learned about Suriname, where there is a strong national indigenous organization.
2. What does the concept of 'indigenous
peoples' means to you?
TK: 'Indigenous' refers to an extremely diverse set of groups and these groups' struggles take place in very different national settings. This diversity is reflected in the fact that there is no internationally agreed definition of indigenous peoples and ILO Convention No. 169 rightly makes self-identification a fundamental criterion. In India, we have the categories of 'scheduled tribes' and 'scheduled castes'. Some people identify as indigenous while others do not.
3. How widely are the ILO and Convention No. 169
known in your country and among people in your
YH: Japan has not ratified Convention No. 169 yet and few Ainu know about the ILO and its mandate for indigenous peoples. Members of my community are realizing little-by-little the significance of processes at the international level and learning how to use international organizations. So far, only some old Ainu people have attended UN meetings and I am the first young Ainu to come to Geneva. Ironically, I was already in Geneva when I contacted the ILO in Tokyo for the first time. However, I hope to have good discussions with them in the future.
TK: People in Lamkang communities do not know about the ILO and Convention No. 169. I learned about the ILO and this Fellowship Programme only by chance and in Delhi. I am also the first young person from my community to come to Geneva. The situation in other Indian states might be different. People in the hills do not have access to and are not aware of the ILO and its Conventions. When I arrive at home I will share the knowledge I have gained during the Programme.
4. What can the ILO do to raise awareness of
indigenous rights and to promote them?
TK: Most people in my community do not speak Hindi, and Geneva as well as Delhi are far away. Everything is far away from the indigenous communities in the Northeast of India. ILO Convention No. 169 and supporting materials should be translated into our languages. In addition, it is important to create links between local communities and international organizations as well as between indigenous peoples in different countries. The Fellowship Programme contributes to both. However, other communities and peoples should have the opportunity to participate, and for that the Programme should be expanded.
YH: I agree that it is important to strengthen networking among various indigenous organizations and the ILO. I thought there was more such networking already going on and learnt otherwise during this Programme. The lack of operational detail in Convention No. 169 could make its effective implementation difficult. Therefore, it is useful that the ILO will now initiate a project to collect and disseminate best practices regarding the implementation of the Convention and its various provisions, and to initiate projects to create good practice in Cambodia and Cameroon. Through this Programme, I realized also the limitations of the ILO and other international organizations. In my opinion, the Convention does not go far enough with regard to consultation and participation in matters of political representation and legislation. Moreover, it is important that various organizations co-operate more closely. However, we also have to realize that the UN system is not a perfect place to get our rights. Still, we have to use existing mechanisms more effectively.
5. Which mechanisms do you find useful?
YH: The UN Treaty monitoring bodies, for example. The Japanese government did not mention Ainu at all in the 1980s. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights then expressed its concern about discrimination against Ainu as a 'minority group' and triggered a debate. Today, the government accepts that Ainu are a legitimate minority while the Committee considers Ainu an indigenous people. The Committee requested data about Ainu from the Japanese government but the government does not have such data. My organization wants to carry out a survey on the socio-economic situation of Ainu and submit our data to the Committee. All in all, the UN is a useful system.
6. What can the ILO do for you and your people,
and what is the role of regional ILO offices in
YH: The ILO can work with governments through its regional offices. For people in Japan, it is very difficult to access organizations in Geneva and it would be good to connect through regional ILO offices. After all, the ILO is the only international organization with a normative mandate for indigenous peoples. Now that we are in contact with the ILO's Tokyo office we can initiate closer co-operation. We are only a small NGO, but the ILO is an international organization. Together we have good chances to influence the government.
TK: The Programme is a great opportunity for us to co-operate more closely with the ILO and other UN organizations, and I think these organizations can do a lot for my community. However, people in the hills do not have the opportunity to access these organizations. Many people there do not even know the rights they have according to the Indian Constitution and it is important to teach them. Now I am in contact with the ILO office in Delhi. I will go and visit the office and discuss with office staff how we can cooperate in the future. My hope is that they can contribute to supporting my project to raise awareness about the right to education among members of my community.
YH: Only rights are not enough. We can't eat rights. Our organizations are weak and it is very difficult to raise funds and train staff. With more skills and staff, our organizations are stronger and can work more independently.
7. What will you do once you are back in your
YH: First, I will inform my organization and other interested Ainu about what I learned here. After that, I want to discuss with ILO Tokyo and possibly with trade unions and other Japanese NGOs to mobilize support for my project.
TK: I will first meet the ILO in Delhi. Based on that I will decide how to continue. People back home are waiting for me to learn about my trip and the knowledge I have gained here in Geneva. I am planning to organize a workshop and prepare a newsletter, in order to disseminate this information.
For more information on Convention No. 169 and PRO 169: www.ilo.org/indigenous.
Note 1 - Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Dominica, Ecuador, Fiji, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.