Victoria Tauli-Corpuz was appointed as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the Human Rights Council in 2014. She also served as former Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2005–2010), and was actively engaged in drafting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.
Ms. Tauli-Corpuz is an indigenous leader from the Kankana-ey Igorot people of the Cordillera Region in the Philippines. As an indigenous activist and an advocate for climate justice and the advancement of women’s rights, she has worked for over three decades on building movement among indigenous peoples.
Vicky (as she is more fondly called) was originally invited to be a keynote speaker at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s “Global Solidarity” conference scheduled for last May in Leipzig, Germany. The coronavirus obviously cancelled those plans, but Tetet Lauron nevertheless managed to speak with Vicky on her views around her six-year stint as UN Special Rapporteur as well as the way forward for a new internationalism.
TL: What was your mandate as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Have there been moments when your position came into conflict with the other “hats”’ that you wear—as civil society leader, a woman, from the Global South, etc.?
VT: Special Rapporteurs (“SRs”) are independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council with the mandate to monitor, advise, and report on human rights situations in specific countries and human rights violations worldwide.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is a development consultant and an international indigenous activist. In 2014 she was appointed the third Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigineous Peoples. She spoke with Tetet Lauron of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.
I have a mandate to promote the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and international instruments related to the promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples (IP). As an SR, I monitor and report on the situation of indigenous peoples’ human rights. I am able to do this by receiving communications from any interested party—from indigenous people, NGOs, and other actors—on human rights violations against indigenous people. Upon receiving those communications, I relate directly with the government involved to flag these concerns and to get them to respond to the questions that I raise.
I do official country visits upon the request and invitation of the government concerned. These country visits are particularly important to obtain direct and first hand-information to investigate the human rights violations against indigenous peoples in a particular country, and to assess positive developments as well as gaps and challenges in the protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples. I am able to familiarize myself with the concrete situation on the ground when I go to the IP communities and dialogue with the indigenous people there. Country visits usually take around 2–3 weeks, and during this time I speak with both government and non-state actors, including the victims and families of victims of IP rights violations, national human rights institutions, academia, and UN agencies. Because it is an official country visit, there is relative freedom of inquiry, and I am able to go even to the jails and other detention centres. After each country visit, I submit a report on my findings, conclusions, and recommendations to the Human Rights Council.
I also do thematic reports on issues that I think are important to dig more deeply into what the issue is all about and come up with recommendations. I did thematic reports on climate change and indigenous peoples, the effects of xenophobic policies on indigenous populations, and others. I submit these official reports to the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and officially present them at the UN General Assembly, the expert mechanism on IP rights, as well as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples.
Since we are independent experts, we cannot be dictated to by governments or even the UN. In a way, it’s a good mechanism that allows you to look into the situation more deeply, with the support of the resources of the UN, but one that also allows you to be very frank about your observations, conclusions, and recommendations to the governments and even the private sector. I expect indigenous peoples to use these to further strengthen their arguments for their advocacies and assertion of their rights.
My being an SR has not really conflicted with the other “hats” I wear. My being an IP rights activist sits well with that. There are some challenges that come with this, though. One is that IPs expect you to speak out as strong as you can on issues that they face—but that’s not always the case. You have to investigate more deeply, validate all the information received, and then do it in the most diplomatic way. You are not doing it as an activist, but as an independent human rights expert—sometimes this is where I face some challenge, but I think I have managed it well. I explain to the IPs that the idea behind this mandate is that you have an opportunity to be able to reach out to the authorities, to the ones who make policies and implement decisions, and hopefully this will help bring about changes. The other challenge is with governments who think that, since you are a UN expert, you won’t be as critical of them. Usually when we are appointed, the UN will ask the government of the country where you are from if it’s fine with them, although that doesn’t have any say in the matter. But it gives some governments the sense that if they agree to have you there as SR, you won’t be as critical about them.
This really highlights how important such a role is. That somehow, you are able to further push the need for dialogue between governments and indigenous peoples. More importantly, it pushes governments to really listen to prevent tensions from further escalating. In that sense it provides a good opportunity for mediating between the IP and the states themselves.
Independent experts dig out the facts and make it more visible, and come up with recommendations. In that sense it entails facilitating dialogues between the two players. We are not paid by the UN. We do this on a voluntary basis, so we don’t have to toe the UN line (and the UN clearly stipulates that). We are independent both from the states and from the UN, and our actions also cannot be independently dictated by indigenous peoples (this was specifically added by governments).
You have come out very strongly on the issue of violations of IP rights, particularly on the criminalization of dissent concerning corporations colluding with governments to make way for extractive projects, etc. What becomes of these reports? Were there actual changes in the situation after you have submitted your report? How would you characterize your six-year term in terms of advancing IP rights?
The reports should be read by the states concerned as well as the IP themselves. The idea is that the reports expose the realities that IPs face, and provide recommendations to governments on actions that should be taken to find resolution to the different concerns.
In terms of impact, it is very unfortunate that you make these country visits and go through the whole process, but in the end governments only take in and implement very few of the recommendations made. The only thing that makes governments more open to adopting recommendations is if the IPs themselves really use the reports to push their governments into doing something. I have made some reports that spoke strongly about IPs who were incarcerated on the basis of trumped-up charges, and eventually some of the leaders were released. We are constantly communicating with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the country level, and I remember that in Mexico and Guatemala particularly, I managed to arrange for the release of some IP leaders.
Sometimes I am also asked to become an amicus curiae, a “friend of the court”, in cases involving IPs. For instance, in Suriname I was an amicus curiae in a case filed with the Inter-American Court on Human Rights that basically charged the government with violating the territorial rights of IPs. The judge ruled in favour of the Kaliña and Lokono peoples of Suriname, and ordered the government to discontinue with the mining project in a protected area.
I also once issued a communication with the government of Kenya on a disputed water project funded by the European Union going into the forests that resulted in the killing of a Sengwer indigenous man. I wrote the EU and asked them to look into this, and thankfully, they cancelled their loans for this project.
I tried to do what I can as SR, considering all the limitations. It would have even been better if the governments had been more inviting. But the problem is there are a lot of governments that do not want to invite a rapporteur. I have not received an invitation to do a country visit in Asia—not even in the Philippines! It’s quite frustrating that the UN have set up the Expert Mechanism, and then you have governments that refuse to invite you over and get upset if you strongly criticize them. You won’t be able to come up with a report if you go to their country without an official invitation to visit. The best that you can do under those circumstances is to send a communication to that country where there are complaints received, but sometimes governments do not even respond. What’s the point of setting up something, when in the end, governments don’t cooperate? They ratified the human rights convention, and yet they don’t implement it. That’s the problem we have with this multilateral system—they go through all the motions, but it’s their limited narrow interests that they want to promote. Respect for basic human rights remains a very low priority.
There are some victories, but in the main, it’s still very difficult. We should expect governments to do much more, so I’m still not satisfied that many of the recommendations I’ve made have not really been implemented by the governments.
Why is there is a need to have IP-specific rights? Are there tensions/conflicts between IP-specific rights and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR)?
The UNDRIP is basically about collective rights of IPs to their territories and cultures that are not particularly addressed by the UDHR, which pertain more to individual civil, political, economic, and social rights. The UNDRIP is significant in that it recognizes that there are indeed people who do not subscribe to just individual rights but to their rights as collectives, as groups of people who want to maintain their identity, cultures, indigenous governance, and justice systems that were undermined by modern government systems. These are the specificities of IP rights that were not dealt with in any adequate manner by existing human rights instruments.
The right to self-determination is the foundation of indigenous peoples’ rights. The UNDRIP is the interpretation of how international human rights standards and conventions are applied for indigenous peoples, taking into account their specific context, history, and vision for their own future as distinct people of distinct cultures.
With so many problems and uncertainties in the world today, where do you see moments or spaces of optimism?
Having been a UNSR for the past six years, I see “rays of hope” in indigenous communities that are strong, empowered, and self-governing. In many of my visits for instance, in Latin America, self-governing communities have their own autonomous political units, and they are the ones who are able to carry out their day to day life in a way that upholds their rights.
In Mexico, many communities who have self-declared their autonomy have been able to exercise effective stewardship of the forests. They are able to field their own political candidates and local government officials, and as a result were able to put a stop to the activities of drug dealers who also act as illegal loggers deforesting IP lands. The government filed a case against them, but the IPs fought back and filed a counter case, which the Supreme Court upheld on the basis of the provision in the Mexican Constitution that recognizes the rights of IPs to govern themselves. When I visited them, they were very proud to say that the well-being of the people and the environment are now in a much better state. These experiences that I saw at the community level—that’s what gives me hope. In the end, it’s really about empowerment—both of the individual and the collective—that can bring about the vision of the community you would like to have, and using the legal standards, both national and global, to further assert their claims.
You were supposed to have addressed the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Global Solidarity conference with the theme “For an Internationalism of the Future”. What could and must an internationalism of the future look like? How could real global solidarity emerge?
Most people would really like a society that fosters and lives by the values that we all hold dear—freedom, peace, democratic participation, justice. These are our visions of what a society should be, and that is something that should bind us under a new international order. We are fighting for a world that upholds those principles and values that we believe in.
It’s almost impossible to think that there would be people who do not long for peace, democratic participation, and the ability to influence decisions on things happening in their communities, countries, and even internationally. We would like to see an economic system that is not just controlled by a few, and that whatever wealth is generated is shared by the majority. These are our ideals of what a society should be—that there is a good relationship between you and your neighbours, on the basis of the very fundamental values. These are the foundations for any kind of internationalism. Underlying all these are empowered individuals and people who feel they have a say, they have agency, and that they are listened to and can participate in building this kind of society.
This is basically antithetical to what we see now—the hyperaccumulation of wealth by a few, continuing wars to plunder resources of other countries, as well as impose an unjust and inequitable order where politicians are unaccountable and corrupt. And then you also have laws that constrain your capacity to dissent and to disagree.
True internationalism allows people to participate in constructive ways, but also in ways that are challenging the dominant systems. All these rights that people are fighting for—whether women’s rights, labour rights, IP rights, environmental sustainability—the foundation of all of these is equality and non-discrimination. The foundation of international human rights law is equality between genders, peoples, and nations. Once these principles are really promoted and upheld, then a new internationalism can be taken to heart. Look at all those systems which further strengthen unjust, unequal, violent societies—we have a lot of basis to resist together and be in solidarity with each other.
There is a lot that can really bring about the kind of solidarity that we are looking for, even if you are addressing it from the very distinct perspective of the group that you belong to. I don’t see any kind of contradiction in the assertion of our basic human rights—we do not want systems that oppress, marginalize, or discriminate. We have a common vision and we are all working towards making people aware of their responsibilities as citizens. If this could be realized, then we will have a better future. But right now, it’s so easy for those in power to divide. So that’s also the big challenge—how do we resist efforts to divide us amongst ourselves and weaken the movements that are pushing to bring about those kinds of changes?