How a Filipina Activist Fights for Human Rights at the U.N.

Earlier this year, CI board member and human rights activist Victoria Tauli-Corpuz was appointed as the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the Human Rights Council President. She is the first woman and the first person from a developing country to hold this three-year position. Vicky attended the World Parks Congress this past week in Sydney, Australia. Today on Human Nature, she explains what brought her to this point.

Indigenous peoples in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, Panalingaan, Palawan, Philippines. (© Conservation International/photo by Lynn Tang)

Indigenous peoples in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape in Palawan, Philippines. (© Conservation International/photo by Lynn Tang)

I began teaching myself about human rights during the 1970s, when the Philippines was under martial law. I was actively engaged in the struggle against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Indigenous communities like mine were challenged by plans to build mega-hydroelectric dams, militarization, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of our leaders and activists.

In order to fight back, I needed to understand what our human rights as indigenous peoples are and where we could bring our grievances for redress.

After attending a number of training courses, I established several institutions that provided trainings on human rights to indigenous communities, lawyers and paralegal workers. The latest one is Tebtebba (Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education), based in the Philippines and which provides capacity building and advocacy activities at national, regional and global levels. Tebtebba also convenes the Global Indigenous Peoples Partnership on Climate Change, Forests and Sustainable Development, composed of indigenous organizations, communities and networks in 14 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Measuring the growth of a newly planted mangrove in Silonay, Philippines. (© Nandini Narayanan)

Measuring the growth of a newly planted mangrove in Silonay, Philippines. (© Nandini Narayanan)

Over the years, I have become more involved with the U.N. processes that play integral roles in determining and implementing numerous international human rights, environment and development conventions, standards, policies and programs that impact the lives of indigenous peoples. I was actively engaged in the drafting, negotiations and adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was eventually adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, when I was Chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

My colleagues in Tebtebba and I also actively engaged with the Convention on Biological Diversity and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to ensure recognition of the UNDRIP. Together with others, we pushed for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in the processes of these bodies.

However, there is still a long way to go before indigenous peoples’ rights are effectively respected, protected and fulfilled. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to apply for the position of Special Rapporteur, which I assumed on June 2, 2014. In this era, when many of the world’s remaining natural resources are largely found in indigenous peoples’ territories, there are increasing violations of their basic rights to lands, territories and resources and to self-determination and participation.

I am terribly concerned that putting human rights into sustainable development, finance and trade agreements always seems to be an uphill struggle. In fact, in many multilateral and bilateral free trade agreements and investment treaties, there is hardly any mention of human rights. Yet investment and trade agreements determine the main trajectory of development in most countries. If a country decides that is most important source of economic growth is on extracting minerals, metals, oil and gas, then it provides all the right incentives to investors even at the expense of social and environmental costs. Some countries have been brought to court by investors because they are implementing social and environmental standards to adhere to their obligations to human rights and environmental sustainability.

But achieving sustainable development cannot be disconnected from the need to respect and protect the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people living on the lands in question. Through my role as Special Rapporteur, I think I can help governments better understand how the development visions and aspirations of indigenous peoples are consistent with sustainable development objectives. My main mandate over the next three years is to monitor how the rights of indigenous peoples are being respected, protected and fulfilled by states, corporations and other business entities, and then make recommendations based on my findings.

I believe I can bring a unique perspective and experience to the role, which could spur new thinking and innovative initiatives. I am proud to be the first woman — and first person from a developing country — to hold this position. I have helped establish indigenous women’s formations from the local to the global levels, and I am convinced that the empowerment of our women is crucial to address more deeply the issues of discrimination, racism and violence.

ndigenous Peoples in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, Panalingaan, Palawan

An indigenous woman and child in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, Palawan, Philippines. (© Conservation International/photo by Lynn Tang)

In a time when the world is faced with multiple unprecedented economic, environmental and social crises, new strategies and approaches must be developed. Spaces and processes for indigenous peoples to engage have been very limited in the past, but now there are outlets in the U.N., like the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (which I chaired from 2005-2009), the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Global Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership on Climate Changes, Forests and Sustainable Development. And the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights, a collaborative effort of conservation groups like Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund and IUCN, is another step in the right direction.

Over the next three years, I aim to help build the confidence and abilities of indigenous peoples to assert their rights, as well as help countries more effectively uphold human rights. I will research and identify reoccurring issues relevant to the rights of indigenous peoples; visit various countries to learn more about the challenges indigenous groups face; and communicate with governments about alleged human rights violations. I also plan to focus on the impacts of big business on the rights of indigenous peoples and to collaborate with indigenous partner organizations worldwide.

Only by facilitating constructive and peaceful engagements between governments and indigenous peoples will we have a chance at achieving global peace and security.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the executive director of Tebtebba and the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She has been a CI board member since 2009.

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