Voices on the Ground 

Tackling the growing threats to human rights defenders, indigenous leaders and communities through business and government respect for collective land rights  

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Photo from IMPACT Kenya

On December 2, Zero Tolerance Initiative held a webinar where four distinguished Indigenous leaders shared their reflections on the implications the recent COP26 summit and UNGPs in the next decade (following on from the 10th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights) could have to land and environmental defenders and securing collective rights. 

The leaders were: 

  • Mali Ole Kaunga, a Laikipia Maasai and found and director of Impact, Kenya 

  • Yana Tannagasheva, representative of the Shor Indigenous People of Kuzbass, South-West Siberia Region, Russia (currently relocated to Sweden due to threats)

  • Mrinal Kanti Tripura, Director of Maleya Foundation, Bangladesh

  • Peruvian Human Rights Defender (whose name was not used for security reasons) Representative of AIDESEP, Peru 

 

This event was moderated by Lola Garcia-Alix, senior advisor at IWGIA with opening and concluding remarks from Anita Ramasastry, member of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

Opening remarks

Anita Ramasastry’s opening remarks gave an overview on the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which engages with governments around the world to support communities and human rights defenders.

 

“In all the continents we’ve visited, the issue of collective land rights is one that repeats itself in every jurisdiction […] We have seen communities lose access to communal lands in the name of any number of business projects, from mining to infrastructure. This is something we have repeatedly highlighted in our reports to the UN and in our recommendations to particular countries.”

 

Ms. Ramasastry also mentioned a report that the working group released in June 2021; “The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: guidance on ensuring respect for human rights defenders.” A seminal report presented by the UNWG, it unpacks the normative and practical implications of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in relation to protecting and respecting the vital work of human rights defenders. The guidance states that companies should "Develop and publish human rights defender-specific policies, in consultation with human rights defenders... [the policy should include] Commitments on human rights defenders, including zero-tolerance for attacks on human rights defenders.

 

“The current situation is that there are increasing threats [to defenders’ rights], increasing use of the legal process, criminalisation and strategic litigation to silence defenders. We need companies to stop using the legal system to harass defenders. We need lawyers to stop representing companies to harass defenders. We hear you [HRDs], we see you, we thank you and want to be part of the solution.” 

Mali Ole Kaunga, Kenya

Mali Ole Kaunga was asked to give an evaluation of the agreements made at COP26 and whether they addressed the root causes of attacks against indigenous leaders. He expressed his frustration at the disparity between the discussion of human rights and human rights being implemented into new agreements.

 

“We know that climate justice issues are human rights issues. I felt frustrated that it’s not being accepted by some of the parties when it’s such a key issue.”

 

He also mentioned that investment into oil and gas exploration was being carried out in Kenya by rich, developed countries who are some of the major polluters.

“I’ve found it intriguing, or rather strange that they are agreeing to cap global warming and address [climate] issues and invest much more on clean energy, when they are the ones investing in oil exploration […] It’s frustrating, as I didn’t find a lot of honesty when it came to issues to do with Nationally Determined Contributions.”

He also mentioned the Lake Turkana case, where the High Court in Meru nullified the title deeds for community land acquired by the Lake Turkana Wind Power company.

 

“Why is it important? First of all, it’s a precedent in Kenyan law that a few small communities without power have been able to challenge a powerful company. Often the [company] will think that the communities can be silenced through some sort of corporate social responsibility project, but their land is who they are. They are fighting for their land, and they are fighting to ensure that their voice is heard in all of this.”

 

“It also pushes companies and investors to do due diligence. You can’t just assume that the land has been given to you by the government. You need to go and do your own individual company due diligence to ensure that the investments are carried out within the bounds of the law, and also within the United Nations Guiding Principles”

Yana Tannagasheva, Siberia

Yana Tannagasheva, representative of the Shor Indigenous People of Kuzbass, South-West, gave an overview of the situation of her community and how they have been affected by coal mining.

 

“The production of coal in my region is a violation and a disturbance of human rights. People who refused to sell their houses to the coal companies had them burnt down. The coal companies are surrounding our native Shor villages. The burning of the village Kazas was discussed at the UN CERD committee. This was my family’s village and it was destroyed.”

 

“[As a human rights defender] I am receiving threats regarding my children. We were under constant surveillance by the Russian security services. The people who are standing up for the rights of their peoples are the same as extremists and terrorists in the eyes of the authorities.”

 

As a direct result of her talk, a team member of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs offered support to Yana.

AIDESEP, Peru

 

A Peruvian Human Rights Defender and representative of AIDESEP chose not to have their name disclosed due to safety reasons. They elaborated on some of the agreements made at COP26 and how those agreements might effectively address the root causes of attacks of indigenous rights defenders in in in Peru.

“I think there are ambitious agreements on the part of the states, yet it does not take into account our work as human rights defenders. International agreements do not look to the people who live in forests and care for them. Our participation in these spaces is vital. The agreements established by the states are just talk, we are not part of the decisions. It is the governments and the states who take decisions affecting our lives.”

The second part of the discussion included a Q&A with the audience where there were requests to elaborate on the “Conflict Sensitivity Approach” or “Do no harm approach” shared by Mrinal as well as more information on the court decision affecting the Lake Turkana case, and reflections on a key COP26 outcome on carbon finance in article 6 where there is no explicit recognition of land, territorial and resource rights, as well as no requirement for FPIC. 

Mrinal Kanti Tripura, Bangladesh

Mrinal Kanti Tripura, Director of Maleya Foundation in Bangladesh, was also asked to give an assessment of the COP26.

“There are 1.7 billion dollars set aside for Indigenous peoples. The question is how will we get access to this funding? There are so many rules and procedures and requirements that indigenous organisations cannot fulfil. We should be able to easily access this funding.”

“Everything depends on the land and forests. It’s very interlinked, we cannot isolate climate change from other issues. Indigenous peoples’ world view is holistic. If the world leaders really understand that we have to save the planet, I can’t see why they don’t agree with Indigenous peoples demands."

“We have good international standards like ILO169 convention, UNDRIP, so any global spaces need to respect the already established international standards.”

Mrinal also mentioned a Conflict Sensitivity Approach, that would be key to ensuring that actions happening on community land did not create more issues.

“State and non-state actors who come to indigenous territories to address the climate crisis may create new conflicts. There must be detailed analysis by these actors that include indigenous peoples on the ground to avoid such conflict.”

The webinar was a vital space for Human Rights Defenders to raise awareness of the threats they face on the ground, and how the implementation of international legislation and the UNGPs needs to improve in order to effectively protect them.