THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS OF THE PHILIPPINES
on the Occasion of the Forum on R.A. 8371
and the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
CHR Conference Room
11 August 2008
LEILA M. DE LIMA
Chairperson, Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines
If I were asked what the number one threat against the human rights of Indigenous Peoples is, I would say that the answer is already there in the question itself: the label “Indigenous Peoples” precisely.
There is nothing wrong with the term “Indigenous Peoples” per se. In fact, it’s a far cry from the term “Non-Christian,” as crassly defined and used by the Supreme Court in 1919 in denying the writ of habeas corpus applied for by the Mangyan of Mindoro. There they equated the term “to natives of the Philippine Islands of a low grade of civilization.” The decision in that case, Rubi v. Provincial Board of Mindoro, is rife with worse language, which does not bear repeating at this day and age. Fortunately for us, we have come a long way from where we were then. We cannot obliterate it from the annals of our jurisprudence, but at least we have made some considerable headway in making up for it, not the least of which is the decision in Cariño v. Insular Government, where the concept of native title was first recognized, and which paved the way for the later enactment of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, which in turn enshrined the IP’s rights to their ancestral lands and domains.
The problem, therefore, is not the label itself, but its effects on, and implications about, society’s frame of mind.
Before I expound on the thesis, let me first ask you something. How many of you here are guilty of – or know someone who is guilty of – persistently tracing, however remote, your pedigree to some foreign race, especially our Spanish or American conquerors? Of proudly crediting a particularly attractive physical trait to some foreign lineage? Of thinking that it is a compliment to be described as a mestizo or mestiza?
In contrast, how many people readily volunteer a kinship with an indigenous group? How many people use the names of indigenous groups as a derogatory term in common parlance?
Furthermore, the problem is not one one-sided. How many of us, who have closer kinship ties to indigenous groups, become defensive about such relations when among those who do not have such ties?
I distinctly remember an occasion when, in a conversation among friends, the name of an indigenous group came up. When the conversation came to an end and the friends began to part ways, one of them took the person who mentioned the indigenous group aside. He explained that, as a member of an indigenous group himself, he was offended by the casual reference to an IP group. This was despite the fact that the context of the reference was quite apparently innocuous. How many of us, like him, become sensitive about our indigenous background, whether such a reaction is warranted or not?
If we are honest in answering these questions, it is easy to understand why the chief threat against the rights of Indigenous Peoples is the very label itself. The whys and wherefores of this flawed, but sadly common, mind-set are of secondary importance. What is imperative is that we finally recognize that such behaviors do exist.
At least, in the case of other vulnerable groups – such as women, children, the elderly, migrant workers, persons with disabilities – the vast majority of “Non-Indigenous Peoples” in society could, more or less, easily find a common ground to start from. Every one of us, although not a parent to a child, could easily empathize with children’s rights because we were all once children ourselves. It’s easy to rally in favor of women’s rights because half of our population is women themselves, while the men must have mothers, sisters, wives or daughters. Everyone could be motivated to fight for the rights of the elderly because, if we’re fortunate, we would all inevitably join that demographic.
In contrast, once we start labeling certain issues as relating to Indigenous Peoples, we, consciously or unconsciously, trigger the “othering” or disassociation process. For the majority, the issues almost immediately become remote concerns. They become “miscellaneous” issues, which are to given the time of day only on a charity basis, not as personal or principal matter of interest.
This “othering” process is made possible by the very definition of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous or aboriginal peoples are so-called because they were living on their lands before settlers came from elsewhere; they are the descendants – according to one definition – of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at a time when people of different culture or ethnic origins arrived, the new arrivals later becoming dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means. Most have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics which are clearly distinct from those of other segments of the national populations.
There is, therefore, in most instances, a very clear line of demarcation dividing the Indigenous Peoples from those who are not. Worse, the differences between the two groups arise from their vastly distinct social, cultural, economic and political characteristics – the very aspects of a person’s life that have the capacity to define each person as an individual and, at the same time, to give him or her a sense of belongingness.
In other words, the tendency is for people to take ownership of certain issues and to relegate the rest as “other concerns,” as IP issues.
The attempt to reverse this “othering” process is precisely the reason why the General Assembly, recognizing the need for a new approach to the issue of indigenous peoples, declared August 9 as the International Day of the IPs. As we gather here today as part of the celebration of the World IP Day, we acknowledge that raising awareness is critical.
In order to protect the individual and collective rights of the world’s 370 million native peoples, to maintain and strengthen their cultural identities, to emphasize their right to pursue development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations, to prevent discrimination against them, and to promote their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them, we must first put faces to the label: Indigenous Peoples.
However, it is just the first step. Beyond this, we must look past what differentiates them from the majority, and build on those traits that make them our kin. For as long as we lay claim to this land called the Philippines, its indigenous peoples are our brothers and sisters. Their history is our history. Their culture is our culture. Whatever our peculiarities from one another are, they are part of our collective identity as a nation.
These considerations are precisely why I support this Forum. It provides a good “opportunity to raise awareness of indigenous peoples’ cultures and the great diversity that they represent.”
I would like to draw your attention to one important objective of the forum, which is to come up with an action plan for the 4th Commission to undertake. In this regard, let it be the mandate of this forum to come up with, not just any action plan, but one that is Rights-Based.
For your guidance, a Rights-Based Action Plan towards the realization of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is one that incorporates four key elements:
1. Express Linkage to human rights;
2. Increased Accountability through the identification of claimholders – in this case the Indigenous Peoples – and their entitlements, and duty-holders and their obligations;
3. Empowerment of claimholders;
4. Active, free and meaningful Participation, not mere formal or ceremonial contacts with beneficiaries.
Any action plan that we come up for must, therefore, begin with true and effective contact with claimholders. The Commission must communicate with them directly and personally. Any contact must neither be aimed at parading them for photo opportunities to exhibit a superficial effort to reach out, nor merely studying them for they are not specimens or curiosities to be examined. The action plan must provide for an infrastructure for effective face-to-face communication.
It must also facilitate real and informed participation by the Indigenous Peoples, with the aim towards, among others:
1. Informing and Educating them of their rights and how these may be exercised;
2. Determining, from their perspective, how these rights fit into their own individual cultural, social, political and economic structure;
3. Determining how their participation could be best realized (i.e. whether through representatives or as a collective, etc.)
4. To obtain their comments, opinions and suggestions in any and all relevant matters;
5. To aid them in coming to a decision on whether or not to assimilate and, if so, to what extent;
6. Determining their immediate concerns
7. Determining how to promote their economic and cultural rights (e.g. by giving them economic incentives similar to those accorded to small and medium enterprises in order to promote indigenous products, preserve their heritage, improve their conditions, and realize their right to self-determination)
Time is of the essence. Tangible results must be achieved as soon as possible. The action plan, ideally, must be available no later than the end of this year so that the rest of the term of the 4th Commission could be devoted to implementation or execution, and continuous refinement.
We must go beyond lip service. We must end our xenocentricity. When we welcome our indigenous brothers and sisters we must accord them equal, if not greater, respect and courtesy as we do our foreign guests.
I cannot help but admire the rich culture of the Chinese, which was demonstrated in such a superlative fashion during the recently concluded opening ceremonies of the 29th Olympiad, the Chinese has a rich culture, cultivated by thousands of years of history. Likewise, we can enrich our own by rediscovering our ancient past – to which our indigenous kin are the key. Who knows what knowledge and wisdom we would discover unearth in the process.
Together, perhaps, we could finally bring to fruition a more progressive future.
However, we must always bear in mind, that we cannot impose upon them our idea of what is best for them. That was the error made by the State 90 years ago in the case of the Mangyans. It is also the same mistake that the State is on the verge of making with the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA AD) between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Panel on the Peace Process, which creates a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE). Our indigenous peoples, who are not members of the MILF, stand to be directly affected by the inclusion of their ancestral domain in the proposed MOA AD. They stand to lose their land, their identity, their life and their very existence.
On this issue, the Commission has already expressed its stand when it issued an advisory Friday, August 8, 2008. As expressed in the advisory, “Without going into the merits of the MOA AD, the Commission questions the process or the approach by which it was negotiated, decided and reached. Issues of the people’s right to information, disclosure and transparency of governmental action are raised. Possible violations of the right to participation, non-discrimination and self-determination have become pressing concerns.”
In proceeding with the Forum today, please keep this and other issues foremost in your mind. Throughout human history, the cultures, livelihoods, and the very existence of indigenous peoples have been endangered. Threats against their cultures, lands, status and other legal rights as distinct groups and as citizens may have take different forms, but let this be our moral guide: “The great law of culture is: Let each become all that he was created capable of being.”
Thank you. I wish you a fruitful day!