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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 251
August 19, 2006

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Human Rights Monitor

Indigenous peoples' human rights

Khandaker Farzana Rahman

Injustice suffered by the victims of minority discrimination and related intolerance is well known in the world including Bangladesh. Limited employment opportunities, segregation and endemic poverty are only a few. The disadvantages faced by them in society are also familiar: lower pay for work of equal value; high illiteracy rate; and poor access to health care, etc.

The minority, immigrant, and ingenious people having limited employment opportunities are at the bottom of the labour market. Maurice Gledle-Ahanhanzo, the special investigator on the subject of the UN Commission on Human Rights, studied the situation of indigenous women in the labour market when he visited Brazil in 1995. He concluded that, “black women receive the lowest salaries (four times lower than that of a white one), are employed in the most unhealthy locations, work a triple working day and face threefold discrimination.”

Who are ingenious people?
Indigenous people are the people living in an area prior to colonisation by a state or the people living in an area within a nation state, prior to the formation of the nation state, but who do not identify with the dominant nation or the descendants of either of the above.

The UN Commission on Human Rights has provided the following definition: “Indigenous people are composed of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin came there by conquest”.

Indigenous peoples in New World
In the New World, the White European colonizers arrived and settled suddenly, with drastic results. The indigenous people were pushed aside and marginalised by the dominant descendants of Europeans. Modern estimates place the 15th century, or pre-Columbus, population of North America at 12 to 15 million. By the 1890s, it had been reduced to approximately 3000000. In parts of Latin America, the results were similar; in others, there are still majority indigenous populations. They still face the same obstacles as indigenous peoples elsewhereprimarily, separation from their lands.

Indigenous people in Bangladesh
In Chittagong Hill Tracts, the term indigenous people or Adivasi(in Bengali) applies to eleven montagnard or hill peoples: Bawm, Chak, Chakma, Khumi, Khyang, Lushai, Marma, Tanchangya, Tripura. They are mainly known as Pahari. In the central and north-western parts of Bangladesh, the Koch, Rajbangshi, Munda and Santhal live.

Steps taken by United Nations

  • UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states the rights for indigenous people: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of law.
  • ILO Convention No. 107 of 1957 provides the promotion of improved social and economic conditions for indigenous peoples.
  • In 1970, the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (a subsidiary body of the Commission on Human Rights) commissioned special Rapporteur Martinez Cobo of Ecuador to undertake a study on “The Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations”.
  • The report found that some governments denied indigenous peoples existed within their borders. Other denied existence of any kind of discriminationin contradiction to the reality encountered. It described cases where the government authorities unwittingly betrayed their badly discriminatory thinking.
  • The establishment of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982 was a direct result of the Cobo Study. Consisting of five independent experts, the Working Group meets annually in Geneva, and until now, has been the only arena in the United Nations system in which indigenous people could state their views.
  • The United Nations International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004) has helped to focus efforts in the United Nations system on two primary goals: The creation of a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the drafting of a Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous People.

The ECOSOC and the United Nations Charter body to which the commission on Human Rights reports took steps to establish the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which will consist of eight governmental experts and eight indigenous representatives.

Indigenous peoples' rights in Bangladesh
The Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh provides the similar rights as fundamental rights stated in UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of all citizens in Bangladesh and article 28(4) of the Constitution enables the state to enact special provisions for advancement of any backward sections of citizens.

On 9August 1993, the Bangladeshi Indigenous peoples while celebrating the International year of the World's Indigenous Peoples, demanded constitutional recognition of their cultural integrity. The impact of the international events was realised within this country in various ways.
*The UN events led to the forging of greater unity among the country's indigenous peoples.
* It instilled a greater sense of pride in their indigenous identity.
*It led to the growing currency of the term “indigenous” and “adivasi”.

Though the indigenous peoples constitute a considerable part of the country's population they are denied to play a role in state-formation and nation building. They cannot exercise their rights in the case of land alienation. Again they are suffering from the non-acknowledgment of their right to self-determination and the district and regional councils are indifferent in this respect.

What can be done?
To protect the rights of the indigenous people and to resist the discrimination against them, some recommendations must be adopted, such as

  • Good governance plays a vital role in involving minorities in society and protecting their rights and interests. Through recognition, dialogue and participation, all the citizens of a diverse society can form a greater understanding of one another's concerns.
  • Education and the media have important roles to play in this regard, as do political representatives and community leaders.
  • Positive action by states can include legislative measures that introduce higher maximum penalties for minority motivated crimes.
  • State authorities need to ensure that minorities enjoy the fundamental right to equality both in written legislation and in society at large. The roles of local government, civic organisations and non-governmental organisations are important in this respect.
  • The government should take some effective initiatives to increase the employment of persons of minority origins in fields where they are under-represented, and establish human rights institutions.
  • Other recommendations include monitoring hate speech, promoting empowerment through education, and ensuring adequate housing and access to health care for the indigenous people.

The author is in 4th year LL.B. (Hons), University of Dhaka.

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