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Criminalization of Indigenous Peoples is Intensifying Globally

Cristina Coc (Maya Q’eqchi), Advocacy Coordinator at Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI) moderating  panel "Criminaliza- tion of Indigenous  Peoples’ Rights" organized by IPRI in the Indigenous Media Zone at the UNPFII in April 2024, with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Kankanaey Igorot) and Fergus McKay.  Photo by Jamie Malcolm- Brown/Cultural Survival.

Around the world, Indigenous Peoples face an increased and widespread criminalization in exercising their rights, including when protesting against the very violations of their rights. According to Global Witness, in 2022, 177 people were murdered for defending human rights, their lands, and our environment. More than one-third, 36 percent, of the defenders murdered were Indigenous, despite Indigenous people making up only 6.2 percent of the world’s population. Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions to be an Indigenous rights and environmental defender. Three out of four assassinations of environmental defenders take place in Latin America. In 2023, Cultural Survival tracked 77 murders of Indigenous defenders in Latin America, up from 52 in 2022, and 33 in 2021.

“Indigenous Peoples are the protectors of nature, bio-diversity, lands and cultural heritage. However, even as they defend these territories, we see that the criminalization of Indigenous Peoples is intensifying,” Cristina Coc (Maya Q’eqchi), Advocacy Coordinator at Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI) said at a panel organized by IPRI in the Indigenous Media Zone at the 23rd Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April 2024. Based in the Philippines and established in 2019 to lead and coordinate the Global Initiative to Address and Prevent Criminalization, Violence, and Impunity against Indigenous Peoples, IPRI works to protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights and to unite and amplify the call for justice for victims of criminalization and impunity. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Kankanaey Igorot) from the Philippines, Director of Tebtebba, Co-founder of IPRI, and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Fergus McKay, Senior Legal Counsel at IPRI spoke at the panel.

In February 2024, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues presented their most recent report, “Criminalization of Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights,” which focuses on the typology and examples of criminalization, relevant international instruments, jurisprudence and access to justice, and conclusions and recommendations. It provides recommendations for UN bodies, governments, and others to better address this growing threat. We present excerpts of comments of the panelists about the report and the issue of criminalization here.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Kankanaey Igorot)

“I have been receiving consistent complaints from Indigenous people from all over the world about the fact that they are being criminalized. False accusations are filed against them, and several of them have been detained in the courts. It’s a very serious concern because Indigenous people have been resisting displacement from their lands and territories and also protecting their resources. They are the ones who most commonly face charges of criminalization. They are accused of [being] anti-development. Even while I was the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, I was included in a list of 300 so-called terrorists in the Philippines.

This report has been the precursor for me to propose that we create Indigenous Peoples Rights International, because I believe that focus should be given to the issue of criminalization. This is what brings fear to Indigenous communities, and it’s also what curtails their capacities to assert their right to self-determination and to be critical of States and corporations who are violating their rights. It’s also communities that are criminalized and put into prison My official visit to Australia showed that while Australian Aboriginal people are 5 percent of the population, they occupy 50 percent of the jails of Australia. This speaks about the racism and discrimination that exist, which is the foundation for filing all these criminalization cases against them.

[What] is important is the empowerment of the Indigenous Peoples themselves, the individuals, as well as the communities. If they are empowered to know more about their rights and to assert and claim these rights, the chances of them being able to get charges dismissed are bigger. Secondly, I think that resources should be made available for them so that they can avail of the services of pro bono lawyers. Many Indigenous leaders are in jail for a long time because there are no lawyers that will take up their case. There’s really a need to make available the services of lawyers and the resources needed for them [in] the domestic courts, but also to make use of the special procedures to make a report to the rapporteur. The role that the mandate-holders can play is also important. [For example], the World Bank continues to fund a project in Tanzania to expand protected areas, which has caused the displacement of Maasai Peoples. Because a complaint was made to the World Bank, the inspection panel is in the process of studying [it]. Documenting and helping the people to document themselves is the first step. These reports that talk about criminalization are going to be crucial also in exposing the issue and getting various multilateral bodies and countries to speak against what’s happening.”

Fergus McKay, Senior Legal Counsel at IPRI “The bulk of criminalization is deeply embedded in national legal frameworks, and it’s usually connected to inadequate recognition or non-recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in those frameworks. National law doesn’t recognize that Indigenous Peoples have rights to land or only partially recognizes it in a fragmented way that [denies] full ownership or full jurisdiction over those lands. Areas that are not included become available to third parties for protected areas, climate mitigation projects, and various other things. We’re seeing that Indigenous Peoples are not only being denied the exercise of their rights, but they’re actually being criminalized for continued occupation and use of these areas—occupation and use that they have a right to do under international human rights law. The root of the problem is national law that doesn’t properly recognize Indigenous Peoples’ rights, more so than using criminal law to suppress protest or to punish people for defending their rights.

One very important decision from 2021 was the case Indigenous Maya Kaqchikel Peoples of Sumpango vs. Guatemala, which involved the criminalization of community radio stations. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights found violations of the right to culture and the right  to freedom of expression in conjunction with self-determination in the case of Indigenous Peoples. It also found that the criminalization of those activities aggravated those rights violations and constituted a whole new level of violations. The court...required that all of those convictions be overturned and any sentences and any penalties expunged; to put it back to as if the criminalization had never occurred in the first place. That’s what should be happening with the bulk of these cases. We have people in one country in jail for up to 12 years for killing buffalo in their cultural ceremonies. There are literally thousands of Indigenous people in jail in that country for consuming buffalo because the dominant religion doesn’t agree with it, whereas it’s part of the practice of their cultural traditions, their spiritual practices, and various other rights.

There’s a need to deep dive into national laws to identify where rights are being criminalized and where those laws need to be reformed. The Committee Against Torture under the Convention Against Torture has the ideal mechanism for doing that. One of its articles requires continuous review of national laws to deal with issues under the heading of torture and cruel and inhumane treatment, and they have explicitly defined imprisoning Indigenous Peoples as a form of cruel and inhumane treatment. The 50 percent [incarceration] rate in Australia is common in many countries around the world. There are very clear avenues for saying we can go through national laws and address where there are criminal sanctions being unjustifiably applied to the exercise of rights, or in the context of these disproportionate, racially discriminatory practices, which should be illegal constitutionally as well as under human rights law. There was a case against Mexico recently decided by the Committee Against Torture where they explicitly stated in their recommendations that Mexico should cease the criminalization of the defense of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights. But it was one sentence in one case. We need more of that. We need it more mainstreamed, and we need it attached to funding conditionalities, [because] it’s going to get worse. Fifty percent of transition minerals are on Indigenous lands. In some countries, it’s 80 to 90 percent. Protected areas are about to be doubled.”

Cristina Coc (Maya Q’eqchi), Advocacy Coordinator at Indigenous Peoples Rights

“It’s very important to look at criminalization in its entire spectrum. One of the things that is really important to high-light is that the individual crimes and violations of human rights against Indigenous individuals are not distinct and separate from the assault and violations against entire communities, because we are part of collective communities. When you violate an individual’s right, the impact is not just on that individual; it impacts the entire community. Land defenders, as human rights defenders, are the ones that are protecting nature, that are protecting life. They are the ones that are under immense threat.”


Cristina Coc (Maya Q’eqchi), Advocacy Coordinator at Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI) moderating  panel "Criminaliza- tion of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights" organized by IPRI in the Indigenous Media Zone at the UNPFII in April 2024, with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Kankanaey Igorot) and Fergus McKay.  Photo by Jamie Malcolm- Brown/Cultural Survival.

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