HANA SHAMS AHMED
The Permanent Forum, established in July 2000 by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is a high-level advisory body that deals with indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights. This is the first UN Forum where indigenous peoples directly represent their own interests. It consists of 16 members, half of whom are nominated by the government and the other half by the indigenous peoples, who advise and report directly to the ECOSOC. It reports and makes recommendations to the ECOSOC, raises awareness and promotes coordination of activities relating to indigenous peoples within the UN system, and prepares and disseminates information on indigenous issues. The members meet once each year for ten working days. Governments, UN bodies and agencies, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, and organisations of indigenous peoples participate as observers. In 2010, at the ninth session of the Forum, Chakma Raja Devasish Roy was selected, from the Asia region, as one of the 16 indigenous expert members for the period of 2011-2013.
From the very beginning, indigenous peoples’ representatives from Bangladesh have been participating at the Permanent Forum sessions. However, this is the first time that the 1997 CHT accord has been a focus of deliberation and dedicated discussion. After the presentation by Special Rapporteur Baer, observer countries, international human rights organisations, including Amnesty
International and International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), and other national and international human rights organisations voiced their support to the recommendations proposed by the study and urged the government of Bangladesh to accelerate its efforts in implementing the CHT Accord.
This statement has been delivered for better understanding of everyone present here on the issue which is clearly ‘non-indigenous’ in nature. This effort, hence, should not be misconstrued as a recognition of the authority of the Forum to discuss the issue of CHT affairs. We urge upon the Forum to dedicate its valuable time to discuss issues related to millions of indigenous people all over the world and not waste time on issues politically concocted by some enthusiastic quarters with questionable motives.
It is important to bear in mind the asymmetry in the status of the two parties to an accord: the state party and the non-state party. If the state reneges on its promises, what can the non-state party do but approach the United Nations? The Permanent Forum is mandated to deal with issues of indigenous peoples, irrespective of terms the governments use to refer to their indigenous peoples: ‘tribes’ or ‘ethnic minorities’ or otherwise.
At the same time, however, indigenous peoples in CHT continue to bring allegations against the Bangladesh Army of its biased stance and actions against them, and of abetting or tolerating human rights violations in the area. For example, in February 2010, settlers burned more than 400 homes of indigenous people in villages across Baghaihat, Rangamati to the ground. The army personnel, who were present in the area in the Baghaihat zone, are accused to have done nothing to stop the arsonists and working instead as a ‘shield’ to protect the settlers. Non-cooperation from the government meant that no independent investigations were conducted into this case. Apart from biased views and actions, the army is also accused of displacing indigenous people from their lands to increase requisitioned land for military garrisons in the CHT.
Time too is running out for the implementation of the Accord during the tenure of the present AL-led government. The Permanent Forum has provided the Jumma (collective name for the indigenous hill peoples in the CHT) with a platform to reach out to indigenous peoples from different parts of the world and put pressure on the government to implement the accord. However, first, the Government of Bangladesh should recognise that it is its own failure that it could not take concrete steps to execute the clauses of the fourteen-year-old accord and that it could not alter its continued anti-indigenous peoples attitude – which led to the internationalisation of the issue in the first place. Overused statements containing phrases like ‘politically concocted’ will not succeed in shifting the blame.
First published in The Himal magazine, June 15, 2011
Hana Shams Ahmed is a member of the Drishtipat Writers’ Collective. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org