Strengthening the security of Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders in Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic


13 january, 2021.- Human rights violations have escalated in Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected, putting the structural inequalities and discrimination that Indigenous Peoples face into sharper focus as they are met by multiple threats simultaneously.

Governments in Asia are passing legislation for controversial development projects on the basis of the need for economic recovery, meaning that Indigenous communities witness their land being overtaken by development activities to an exacerbating degree.

Such legislation has the capacity to devastate Indigenous communities, re-enforcing and intensifying the threats Indigenous people already experience, including violations of their fundamental human rights, restricted access to resources and social marginalization.

What the pandemic has highlighted is the critical importance of the work that Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders (IPHRDs) perform daily in their communities.

IPHRDs monitor the territories of their community, document if any human rights violations or destruction of natural resources has occurred and use this documentation to fight for the rights of their community in different ways. This work puts them in very dangerous positions. They stand on the frontline and face threats from, for instance, legal and illegal logging activities, mining and energy projects implemented by private and state actors.

Addressing these issues and emphasizing the importance of IPHRDs, IWGIA and our close partner Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) are carrying out a project to strengthen the capacity of IPHRDs in Asia with financial support from Civil Society in Development (CISU), an association of Danish civil society organisations working in development.

“We are excited to be able to work across Indigenous communities in Asia who share many of the same experiences stemming from pandemic measures and who can learn from each other to secure their communities and hold governments and other actors to account for their violations and illegal practices,” Signe Leth, IWGIA Senior Advisor, said.

IPHRDs have been key players in reporting and protesting the human rights violations and threats faced by Indigenous communities.

"Indigenous Human Rights Defenders are the central allies in raising the alarm and in addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19 when measures were inadequate or contrary to international human rights law," Gam A. Shimray, Secretary General of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), said.

Activities on a large scale

In Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines land grabbing, illegal logging and development activities are being carried out on a large scale, according to reports received by IWGIA and AIPP. Such activities are often on Indigenous land that has some of the world’s last remaining untapped natural resources. These untouched resources, which have been preserved and safeguarded by Indigenous Peoples who have lived sustainably off the land for decades and centuries, are now seen as the remedy to fix atrophying national economies.

In the Bandarban Hill District of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, the Jumma Indigenous community has witnessed 5,000 acres of their rubber plantations burned down by land grabbers during lockdown and the occupation of their community land has increased during the pandemic.

The Bangladesh Indigenous Women’s Network has documented cases in which Indigenous women have been threatened, intimidated and harassed by security forces when attempting to provide aid to their communities. In Nepal, the Lawyers' Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP), has reported violent confrontations between Indigenous Peoples in Nepal, who are trying to protect their communities from the pandemic by self-isolating, and companies violently invading their territories in order to construct large-scale powerplants.

In India, the recently IWGIA co-published Bearing the Brunt report demonstrates the failure of the national government to alleviate the situation of the Indigenous population who find themselves in an even more desperate situation than before the pandemic began as extractive industries quickly expand.

Responding to the harsh reality

Enhancing the capacity of IPHRDs through this new project will strengthen the communities’ safety and security on various levels, including digital security and health/physical security, which will be crucial in responding to the harsh reality COVID-19 presents.

Running from 2021-22, the project will target 35 IPHRDs in four Indigenous communities in Asia representing 1,500 Indigenous Peoples. The training will focus on how to mobilize and motivate communities to document human rights violations, use advocacy to work with authorities and build alliances with other communities affected by COVID-19 responses. The project’s activities aim to serve as preventative measures to mitigate future urgent threats.


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