Rising to the challenge: A witness and a voice for indigenous people

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz
Corpuz's role as the UN Special Rapporteur involves raising awareness about the minimum international standards to ensure the survival, dignity, and well-being of indigenous people

I got the final confirmation from the UN Human Rights Council for my appointment as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (SRRIP). Just thinking of what this means, overwhelms me.

I was a reluctant applicant as I know the work this position requires and I was not sure that this is what I wanted to do. 

I was involved in drafting and negotiating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) from 1987 until it was adopted in 2007 by the UN General Assembly. But that was only the beginning.

We have to continuously raise the awareness of governments, the UN and the society at large that there is this Declaration that sets the minimum international standards to ensure the survival, dignity, and well-being of indigenous peoples. 

The more difficult task is getting States and third parties, e.g. private corporations, to respect, protect and fulfill these rights. This is the daunting task which the Special Rapporteur is mandated to do. 

She or he will monitor the human rights situations of indigenous peoples all over the world and promote ways to address the obstacles in implementing the UNDRIP and all relevant international human rights standards. 

Implementation gap

The sad reality is that there is still a long way to go before we can say that the UNDRIP is effectively implemented in the Philippines and the rest of the world. There remains a big implementation gap.  

Just this month of March, a series of killings of indigenous persons by unknown armed men. Among those who were killed is William Bugatti, a human rights activist and a Tuwali from Ifugao, whom I personally know. He was shot in March 27 in Kiangan, Ifugao while he was riding home in his motorbike.

Then a Tingguian family, Licuben Ligiw (father) and his two sons Edwin and Fermin, were killed in March 2 and buried in a shallow grave in Sukaw, Domenglay, Baay-Licuan, Abra. It was alleged that this was done by members of the 41st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army.  Bugatti and the Ligiw family were associated with the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance, the body I used to chair in the early 1990s.   

There will be many similar cases which will be brought to my attention when I will assume this post. How will I absorb all these tragic stories and still maintain my objectivity, independence and optimism?

What kind of help can a Rapporteur realistically do with such cases, outside of bringing this to the attention of governments and the UN? What kind of support networks should I reach out to or establish to help me do my work and how to set these up? There will be high expectations from members of indigenous peoples’ movement from this position and I doubt if I can even meet half of these. 

These and many other questions come to mind as I ponder on how I will effectively undertake my mandate as a Special Rapporteur. 

INDIGENOUS LEADER. Vicky Tauli-Copruz (front row, 5th from right) was the former chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Photo from Corpuz's Facebook page

Evidence needed

It is crucial that indigenous colleagues and human rights activists sharpen their documentation skills so that strong evidences will accompany complaints brought to me. Governments also have to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur.

One of the biggest challenges which Special Raporteur James Anaya identified in his final report is how difficult it is to get governments to officially invite him to their countries to look at the human rights conditions of indigenous peoples. He says that while many States have stated that they have standing invitations to Rapporteurs, it is still not easy to get one. I hope the Philippines will be one of the first countries to officially invite me.    

I am very much aware of the great work done by Professors Rodolfo Stavenhagen and James Anaya, the first two Special Rapporteurs. In 2002, I helped organize the official country visit of Stavenhagen to the Philippines. I took part in some of the dialogues they held with indigenous peoples and others. 

They have significantly raised the bar of what Rapporteurs can do. I need to build upon the achievements of these two men, both of whom I regard in high esteem.

My experiences of more than four decades as an indigenous activist doing community organizing, movement building and advocacy for human rights of indigenous peoples and women will no doubt help me.

Drafting and negotiating the UNDRIP and being the Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) from 2005-2009 are additional experiences which will come in handy. Strong support from indigenous peoples and governments, NGOs, the UN system, the academia and also faith-based groups and donors will be needed to sustain the task of a Rapporteur. I look forward to the conversations with all these groups. – Rappler.com  

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