New Law to Protect Rights of Indigenous Peoples in DRC


Shadrack Kavilu for Gáldu –

Date of publication: 
6 January 2011

BRAZZAVILLE, DRC — The livelihoods of millions of indigenous people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is set to change following an enactment of a landmark law that protects the rights of indigenous children by providing access to health and education.

The new law, the first of its kind in the African continent, if implemented it would empower indigenous people and their future generations break the social and economic barriers that have hindered and discriminated the communities from accessing health and educational facilities.

Congo is home to millions of indigenous people among them the Batwa tribe ‘pygmy’ the first inhabitants of the great lake region who have suffered discrimination and segregation from government and major communities.

In recent past, the country has been in the spotlight over its gross violation of children’s rights.

Several reports on the state of children’s rights in Congo indicate that the Congolese government through its armed forces bears direct responsibility for violations of children’s rights and that the government had failed to protect children from rights violations by other non-state armed groups.

However the adoption of a new law that protects and gives indigenous people a legal basis to access health and education has been hailed by various civil society organizations terming it the panacea towards the elimination of poverty and diseases among these indigenous people viewed as the most vulnerable to diseases and other social challenges.

“This is a great step forward for the children of the Congo, and represents a milestone in Congolese history,” said Ms Marianne Flach, the United Nations Children’s Fund representative to Congo moments after the law was adopted by the country’s senate after being ratified by the national assembly.

Commending on the law, the UNICEF representative urged other countries in the region to adopt such laws that would protect the rights of indigenous people and provide social amenities such as health and education.

According to a new report, ´State of the World´s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009´, more than half of the 101 million children currently out of school are from minority or indigenous groups.

It is estimated that a vast majority of Congo’s indigenous people live under the poverty line, 50 per cent of the children have no birth certificate, and one out five children dies before reaching the age of five compared to one in eight among the rest of the population.

Further, 40 per cent of children belonging to indigenous populations suffer chronic malnourishment and 75 per cent of young people lack any schooling.

Adoption of such law and proper implementation, Flach said would reduce the number of indigenous children out of school and help countries accelerate achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals on access to health and universal education.

The adoption of the law comes barely a month after the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, James Anaya tabled a report on DRC’s state of indigenous people.

In his report, the special rapporteur commended the government for the significant steps it had taken to recognize and protect the rights of marginalized indigenous people.

Anaya noted that the law which was by then a draft law before parliament had a strong potential to assist the indigenous peoples of Congo in securing their rights, but cautioned that it will require a strong and concerted effort by multiple ministries and agencies of government to ensure its full implementation.

In his tour of the DRC last year, Anaya observed first hand that indigenous peoples in Congo such as the Baaka, Mbendjele, Mikaya, Luma, Gyeli, Twa and Babongo, which collectively have been known as Pygmies live an extremely marginalized existence.

Many of them live in encampments on the outskirts of villages, without adequate housing or access to basic social services such as health and education. They are subjected to deep-seated discriminatory attitudes that manifest themselves in inequitable social arrangements, including in many instances labour relations that amount to forms of serfdom or involuntary servitude.

He noted that although chronic underdevelopment and poverty is pervasive throughout the country, particularly in rural areas, there are worse conditions of extreme social and economic disadvantage among the indigenous people that are not part of the majority ethnic Bantu of the country.

In his report, the UN special rapporteur called upon the Government of Congo to ensure, not just adoption of the proposed law on indigenous peoples, but also its full and meaningful implementation.

This, he said would require the development of practical arrangements to ensure that policies and programs are developed across the board that implement the rights envisaged by the law.

The Government should strive to ensure that a deeper awareness of the rights of indigenous peoples is incorporated into a range of government agencies, programmes and initiatives, which would allow for a holistic approach to addressing indigenous disadvantage across the country.

He however noted that such an approach should be compatible with the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, thus ensuring not just social and economic wellbeing, but also the integrity of indigenous communities and cultures, and their self-determination.

The report urged the country to ratify the International Labour Organisation Convention number 169 concerning indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries which would complement the law on indigenous peoples and provide a comprehensive legal framework to further advance the rights of indigenous people of Congo.

The UN special rapporteur appealed for concerted efforts to raise awareness about the rights of indigenous peoples among the general Congolese population, in order to change entrenched discriminatory attitudes and foster a sense of understanding and respect among all Congolese citizens.

The report called on the United Nations agencies and international institutions involved in Congo such as the World Bank and concerned governments from other countries with the capacity to provide financial and technical assistance to develop or redouble efforts to cooperate with the Government of Congo to advance the rights of indigenous peoples, in a manner fully consistent with international standards.