Indigenous rights a must


By Reverend Akuila Yabaki, CEO, Citizens Constitutional Forum,

Date of publication: 
23 December 2008

Indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples

(This speech was delivered following a street march at Suva Civic Centre)

Sixty years ago, in 1948, the World was still reeling from the shock of the human rights abuses which occurred during World War II when they signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). During World War II, millions of civilians were killed and tortured based on their race or religion, and the World was determined to prevent the reoccurrence of crimes against humanity on this scale. The International recognition of core human rights which were considered universal and egalitarian was a major development for human rights.

The Declaration enshrined core beliefs on human rights and fundamental freedoms such as the right to life, the right to liberty, freedom of expression and equality before the law. The concept of human rights in this sense was nothing new, and was already encoded in various national constitutions, legislation and treaties, such as the American Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) and the English Magna Carta (1215). The UDHR received unanimous support from UN Member states and was the most significant event in modern human rights development.

Since then, there have been a number of international conventions which promote and protect human rights, including but not limited to:-

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976);
  • International Covenant on Economical, Social and Cultural Rights (1976);
  • Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969);
  • Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1981);
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990);
  • Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992);
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006); and most recently,
  • Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

These documents highlight the evolution of human rights and how they have been developed and refined over time to meet the specific needs of vulnerable people or groups of people. These Declarations and Conventions do not supercede the UDHR or create new rights. They complement it, and ensure that rights are applied in a way that ensures equal treatment of all people. In effect, they are designed to level the playing field, so that the ultimate goal of being free and equal in dignity and rights is achievable.

In interpreting or reading each of these documents, it is important to recall Article 1 to the UDHR, which states:-

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

This concept is reinforced by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (DRIP), which affirms that:

Indigenous Peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such.

The signing of the DRIP was a landmark achievement in itself – the terms of the Declaration were debated for nearly 2 decades before consensus was reached. It was hailed by the UN as “a historic moment when UN Member States and indigenous peoples have reconciled with their painful histories and are resolved to move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all.”

The Declaration recognizes that indigenous peoples have generally suffered throughout the World because of colonization and the disposition of land and resources which has affected the right to development.

The Indigenous peoples of Fiji are fortunate in that our history has not been tarnished by apartheid or genocide. Land rights were recognized in Fiji early on, when in other countries (such as Australia for the Mabo Case in 1988), it took many years of hard fought litigation to win recognition for this right. Currently Indigenous People own 84% of the land in Fiji, and this right is protected by the Constitution. Indigenous People in Fiji are not marginalised or denied participation in government. The Fijian culture and heritage is alive and well for all to see, experience and participate in and has not been destroyed by centuries of oppression, discrimination and maltreatment as with some other nations.

So what does the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples mean for the people of Fiji? It celebrates diversity and the richness of different cultures and civilizations.

It recognizes our right to be different, and to act as an individual or as part of a community as we choose. It encourages participation in matters which affect us all such as education, social welfare, health, environment and governance without discrimination. From it we should learn that multiculturalism is what makes us all part of the common heritage of mankind. We are all entitled to exercise and practice our beliefs, cultures and religions, and should not interfere in the rights of other people to do the same.

New or superior rights are not created for Indigenous Peoples, but it is designed to ensure that we enjoy the human rights and fundamental freedoms that all people are entitled to. The exercise of indigenous rights must be in accordance with international human rights obligations and must never be used to discriminate against other people or deny them the same rights. To do so would do untold damage to the human rights cause in general, and erode the very foundation on which the rights of indigenous peoples depend.

The importance of the Declaration should not be underestimated – its impact on indigenous peoples, and the human rights agenda is significant. It brings us one step further towards the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all – and this is what makes it an important development in human rights for everyone.

Indigenous rights are human rights. They are not separate or distinct, but are one and the same, stemming ultimately from the UDHR and the spirit of humankind.

One cannot exist without the other because human rights are for everyone.