Governments Crushing Their Own


Analysis by Catherine Wilson – IPS

Date of publication: 
30 April 2014

In some developing countries, the police are being used to put down indigenous opposition to the alliance of state and corporate power over natural resources extraction

SYDNEY – The global spectre of state violence against political dissent, with paramilitary law enforcement units advancing against citizens they are employed to protect in cities such as Cairo, Bangkok and Kiev is daily news. But in some developing countries, the police are being used to put down indigenous opposition to the alliance of state and corporate power over resource extraction.

Indigenous peoples around the world confront dispossession for the extractive industry. When formal avenues to resolve grievances with authorities fail, activism is often met with disproportionate force, unlawful detention and the criminalisation of protest leaders. And perpetrators of state violence invariably enjoy impunity.

Protest is frequently the last resort of those with the least socio-political influence.

Mandeep Tiwana of the CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation based in Johannesburg, tells IPS that the ultimate casualty is peoples’ faith in representative government.

“Failure by the state to hold security forces and other powerful state and non-state entities to account for infringement of democratic freedoms and the right to express legitimate dissent undermines democracy severely,” he says.

The police shooting of 34 striking miners at the Britain-headquartered Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana in South Africa in 2012 is seen by many as a watershed moment in contemporary state and corporate brutality.

The same year government forces in Panama deployed rubber bullets and tear gas against Ngabe-Bugle people demonstrating against copper mining on their land, resulting in three deaths.

The police confronted communities rallying in May 2012 against environmental damage and lack of benefits from the Tintaya copper mine in Espinar Province, Peru, owned by Swiss company Xstrata, with two fatalities. Workers Day on May 1 is a reminder of the oppression indigenous people and workers still face around the world.

In the Pacific region, mineral and gas extraction dominated by multinationals has long been protected by mobile police squads. Such action has come often in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where 28 percent of people live below the poverty line.

In recent years, police have been responsible for violent community evictions near the Porgera gold mine in Enga Province, majority owned by Canadian company Barrick Gold, and the fatal killing of a worker who expressed opposition to the PNG LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) project in the highlands.

Protest is frequently the last resort of those with the least socio-political influence.

South Africa, says David van Wyk of the Bench Marks Foundation, “has seen increasing strikes and service delivery protests, many in mine impacted communities.” When authorities fail to address grievances, the issues are left to the police, “which has led to increased police brutality,” he tells IPS.

State violence reflects the critical role of natural resources in national, geopolitical and military power. Many nations including PNG, Guatemala and Nigeria claim state right to subsoil minerals, which can undermine customary land and indigenous peoples’ rights.


Caught in the crossfire: indigenous people in conflict zones

Prabindra Shakya

1 May 2014

Impact and effectiveness hub banner Caught in the crossfire: indigenous people in conflict zones Indigenous people are often victimised in war, but ignored in peacebuilding processes. They must be given a voice

Although no authoritative definition of ‘indigenous peoples‘ exists, one of the most cited descriptions is outlined in José Martínez Cobo’s study on the problem of discrimination against indigenous populations, as follows:

“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.”

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. They make up less than 6% of the world’s population, but speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages, occupy 20% of the earth’s territory and represent 5,000 different cultures. They account for most of the world’s cultural diversity, despite being a numerical minority. Indigenous cultures face dual threats of discrimination and commodification, arising from the perception that they are inferior to non-indigenous communities and their culture is a hindrance to development.

Indigenous people account for 15% of the world’s poorest people. They also face huge disparities in access to and quality of education and healthcare, as well as employment and income.

As a result of their systemic discrimination, extreme poverty, lack of social development and political marginalisation, indigenous people are among the most vulnerable during conflicts – particularly intrastate conflicts, where they can be trapped in the crossfire or represent one side.

They are often victimised by both warring parties, mainly in intrastate conflicts. They are subjected to abuse, executions, disappearances, torture, displacement and harassment by state forces and vigilante groups of rebels or rebel sympathisers. Alternatively they can be forced to join rebel groups, who claim to be fighting for their cause.

In many conflicts, indigenous people form a third side, or resistance to, the conflict. One example is the ongoing Maoist insurgency in India, where armed with traditional weapons, they are fighting for human rights and collective tribal ownership of their ancestral lands. Caught between organised insurgency and governmental backlash, such resistance tends to lead to violent repression from all sides.

They frequently find themselves in conflict with the dominant society and the state in relation to the loss of territory, heritage and resources, or the deprivation of their political, cultural and economic rights. This deprivation largely occurs in the name of development, conservation, migration and urbanisation, and is often accompanied by militarism, which affects indigenous women in particular.

Indigenous people need access to mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution. Experts and practitioners agree that peacebuilding involves achieving “negative peace” – the end of violence – and guaranteeing “positive peace” – addressing the underlying causes of conflict, and developing social justice and political participation.

Peacemaking efforts are usually negotiated at high political levels where indigenous people are rarely represented, despite forming the majority of combatants. Following transitional justice, reforms to guarantee sustainable peace often fail to address indigenous people’s specific issues and grievances that represent the root causes of conflict. This is partly caused by conflicting priorities among political actors in post-conflict situations, combined with inadequate participation of indigenous people in peacebuilding processes and a lack of understanding of indigenous values.

The United Nations system does not afford specific juridical mechanisms for the resolution of conflicts to which indigenous people are party. The international court of justice does not provide legal standing to indigenous individuals or collectives to pursue litigation against states and others. They have limited access to the human rights treaty bodies and the regional international courts, such as the Inter-American Court, in cases where a state party has agreed to optional protocols or has reporting obligations under a treaty. However, the decisions of these bodies are not binding and are often ignored. Thus, indigenous efforts in these forums have not had significant results.

In December 2000, a Manila-based indigenous organisation, the Tebtebba Foundation, convened the International conference on conflict resolution, peacebuilding, sustainable development and indigenous peoples. This produced the Manila Declaration, affirming the right of indigenous people to create new institutions of peacemaking.

According to this declaration, an independent commission held its first fact-finding mission in Colombia, where indigenous people have been trapped in the crossfire of the 50-year civil war. The mission, led by an indigenous female community chief, carried out intensive consultations with indigenous groups across the country regarding appropriate conflict resolution interventions. However, when investigators left the country, the local people who spoke out were vulnerable to retaliation.

To date, the recommendations of the Manila conference have not been implemented and the need for specific mechanisms of resolutions involving indigenous people in the United Nations and at national level continues. However, at the grassroots level the UN secretary general’s Rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies recognises the need for indigenous and informal justice traditions. Increasingly, peacebuilding processes worldwide are recognising this, which is positive for the provision of greater legitimacy and peace at local levels.

The UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples provides the right for indigenous people to develop their own decision-making procedures, including judicial systems. There is therefore a daunting need to create effective processes at all levels, founded on indigenous values, in order to safeguard positive peace for indigenous people. Relations between states and indigenous people must always be remembered if some of the world’s longest-running conflicts are to be solved.

Prabindra Shakya currently works with National Coalition Against Racial Discrimination in Kathmandu and is involved in research and advocacy on human rights and peacebuilding. This article first appeared on Insight on Conflict. Follow @shakya_prbn on Twitter

But in suppressing local opposition, developing nations also act in the neo-liberal interests of multinationals and foreign stakeholders. At Marikana, state violence in the name of security allowed Lonmin to remain removed from direct responsibility for human rights abuses.

In Nigeria 50 years of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta by companies, including Shell and Chevron Texaco, in alliance with the state has enriched foreign and local elites. Government oil revenues are in excess of 350 billion dollars – while 69 percent of the local Ogoni and Ijaw people live in poverty.

Massive resource rents to the Nigerian state have ensured resourcing of the Joint Military Task Force committed to guarding oil installations and quashing communities angered at marginalisation.

In PNG, mobile police squads have received funding for decades from the Australian government, which has stakes in extractive projects such as the Exxon Mobil joint venture, PNG LNG.

Dr Kristian Lasslett of the International State Crime Initiative, based at King’s College London, says unified local opposition poses a threat to the state-corporate alliance in PNG.

“It would dry up the opportunity structure exploited by a swathe of foreign investors who ignore national laws and local custom, and come as a shock to national businessmen who have proven effective in illegal land grabs and corrupt resource transactions.”

Barrick Gold and Esso Highlands have agreements to provide support to police units in the form of vehicles, accommodation, food and fuel. Clauses indicating that support is conditional on state agencies complying with international standards of conduct are rarely enforced.

Companies “adopt a ‘hear no evil and see no evil’ policy when it comes to state violence,” says Lasslett.

The post-9/11 era has also seen increased use of anti-terrorism measures to deal with grievances. The Guatemalan government used the threat of terrorism to declare a ‘state of siege’ in May last year following demonstrations against the Escobal silver mine in the nation’s southeast. This paved the way for suspending civil liberties and introducing martial law.

Justice for the marginalised is a massive challenge in an era of rising illegitimate power, as described in this year’s State of Power report from the Transnational Institute (TNI). It claims that pervasive corporate influence over governments is a factor in the demise of accountability to the governed, even in democratic nations.

“Corporations, through trade and investment agreements, lobbying and corporate capture of political institutions have also weaved a web of impunity that protects their profits and accountability for human rights and environmental abuses,” TNI researcher Lyda Fernanda tells IPS.

Many states, where oppression occurs, fail to observe international codes of police conduct or their duty to protect citizens’ human rights. Tiwana says international law needs to be supported by national legislation, aided by autonomous human rights and police accountability commissions.

“The law favours those with large reserves of money and those who have the capacity and connections to buttress their claims with forms of evidence that courts accept,” says Lasslett. “This is not to say communities can’t win in the courts, but it is not a terrain on which they hold the advantage.”

He believes that when impunity is supported by corruption and inadequate police complaints procedures, powerful social movements may be the most effective way to defend rights.

“The greatest weapon they [indigenous peoples] have is their own history, culture and customary bonds.”