Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 9 (Summer 1997): Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia: Articles: Setting Standards for Indigenous Peoples' Rights: From the Grassroots Up

Jun 5, 1997

"Our existence is threatened by systematic campaigns of extermination, development aggression, population transfers, forced assimilation, invasions, occupations, and militarization."
—Declaration on the Rights of Asian Indigenous-Tribal Peoples, AIPP, 1993.

The Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) is an unprecedented regional forum, composed of eighteen indigenous peoples’ organizations from ten countries, that works to build cooperation and solidarity among the threatened indigenous peoples of the region. AIPP has been actively contributing to international standard setting on indigenous rights—the protection and revitalization of indigenous social and cultural institutions, control over ancestral homelands, and development of communities—through its involvement in the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP), the International Labor Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, and other international forums.

After operating informally as a regional network since 1988, AIPP was officially founded in 1992. That year fifteen indigenous peoples’ organizations determined that a regional organization was needed to formulate common strategies to promote the collective rights and restore the self esteem of Asian indigenous peoples, and counter the assimilationist policies of many Asian governments. Today AIPP includes organizations representing the Igorot, Lumad, Aeta, and Moro peoples of the Philippines; the Ainu of Japan; the Aborigines of Taiwan; the Moluccan, Melayu, and Dayak of Indonesia; the Dusun, Murut, Orang Ulu, and Dayak of Malaysia; the Karen, Lisu, Akha, Hmong, Lahu, Khamu, Il’tin, Lua, and Lawa of Thailand; the Arakham and Chin of Burma; the Jumma of Bangladesh; the Naga and Adivasi of India; and twenty-two nationalities in Nepal.

AIPP acts as a regional forum for Asian indigenous groups by enabling them to participate in its conferences; making presentations and interventions on their behalf; and coordinating networking activities and communications among groups.

AIPP held the Asian Conference on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which produced the first and only Declaration on the Rights of Asian Indigenous-Tribal Peoples, in 1993, a conference on the “Concept of Indigenous Peoples” in 1995, and the AIPP Conference and General Assembly in 1996. These meetings created a space for Asian indigenous peoples to articulate a common conception of the right to self-determination, encompassing rights to land and territories and rights to practice and promote their traditional knowledge, culture, language, education, belief systems, jurisprudence, and economic and political systems.

The pact strongly supports collective rights — rights that benefit a specific social group as a whole, as opposed to individuals within the group. Collective rights, in part, seek to protect resources that have been established and are “owned” by the group, such as indigenous cultural practices or lands. However, advocacy for collective rights by an indigenous community does not diminish the individual rights of its members, which are established according to mechanisms approved by the community. Important resources for human rights concepts can be found in traditional indigenous systems and values, such as the holistic approach to development, participatory decision making, accountability, collective responsibility, and gender justice. The challenge is to adapt some of the indigenous traditions, structures, and technologies to the changed political, cultural, and economic environment.

As a part of the movement over the past five years to bring the struggle of indigenous peoples to the attention of the international community, AIPP has been engaged in a concerted effort to encourage and enable more indigenous peoples’ organizations from Asia to attend the UNWGIP and the Commission on Human Rights’ working group on indigenous peoples. There, such indigenous peoples’ representatives have made and continue to make interventions relevant to the needs and situation of indigenous peoples in Asia and contribute to the drafting and realization of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the implementation of the plan of action for the UN-sponsored International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1994-2004).

As the AIPP secretariat in Bangkok has few resources of its own, the pact relies on member organizations to carry out networking. Member groups of AIPP employ a community-organizing approach to build indigenous communities’ capacity to analyze their own situation and act collectively to assert their rights and control over their resources and lives. One such group is Partners of Community Organization, Sabah (PACOS), which works in Malaysia. PACOS promotes indigenous values and systems, such as participatory decision-making, and seeks to ensure the spiritual, cultural, social, and economic development of the communities it serves. It assists indigenous communities to establish ad hoc peoples’ organizations responsible for the management of community projects and issues, and network with other indigenous organizations. By disseminating materials in popular forms such as resource maps, pamphlets, newsletters and bulletins, plays, and videos, PACOS aims to increase indigenous communities’ confidence in negotiating for their rights. PACOS is initiating a nationwide campaign on security of tenure over customary land, and is working to promote traditional systems of land use and ownership, improve the quality of education and facilities for preschool children in some six communities, establish better marketing links and facilities, and provide support for agricultural innovations. Through the work of member organizations like PACOS, AIPP hopes that indigenous peoples in Asia can establish a program for sustainable development that protects and promotes their political, cultural, and economic rights.

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