Indigenous groups suffer at home - and at summit

Dalits and pygmies are among those upset with the outcome of the UN conference against racism.

Like many representatives of indigenous groups, Adolphine Muhlai is leaving the World Conference Against Racism disappointed.

The land of Ms. Muhlai's people, the pygmies of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been torn by a war - not of their own making - for the past six years. Each army accuses the pygmies, who are ethnically distinct from the rest of the Congolese population, of helping their enemy and her people are constantly displaced by the fighting.

"When you are discovered where you have been hiding with all your family, they proceed with inhumane practices like raping you in front of your family," she said, speaking at a special conference forum for the voices of victims.

The United Nations racism summit sputtered to a close Saturday evening, on an unscheduled ninth day. Exhausted delegates crafted a compromise on the two issues that had stalled negotiations for months: the question of an apology for slavery and whether Zionism would be equated with racism.

But for many conference attendees, there was little to celebrate in the belated deal. Activists like Muhlai had hoped that the conference declaration would include special protections for peoples like her own who are discriminated against in their own nations. They didn't get it.

Delegates and non-governmental organizations say many issues, most of which concern domestic situations, were excluded from the final declaration. For instance, the Dalits - low-caste Indians - failed to get language denouncing discrimination against people based on worth or descent.

The death penalty, discrimination against women, and religious intolerance were among the other issues that critics say were also ignored in Durban.

In fact, many indigenous groups say the conference declaration is a step backwards. It says they have no rights under international law, only those given to them by their national governments.

"They accept in the document that there are indigenous peoples," says Blanca Chancoso, a member of the Ecuadorean delegation to the conference. "But, at the same time, it says that the use of this term will not mean that the rights of these people will be recognized in the international declaration."

Ms. Chancoso - an official delegate - represented one of her country's largest groups of indigenous peoples: the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. In her country, the mountain-dwelling Quichas, of which she is a member, remain mostly impoverished, their land given to multinational companies by a government in which they remain mostly under-represented.

The small number of other Latin nations - Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, and Nicaragua - who had indigenous representatives on their delegations took the lead in pushing for stronger language on indigenous peoples' rights, but Western nations mostly blocked their proposals.

Western governments, specifically Canada, feared that the declaration could have a legal effect on ongoing land disputes between indigenous peoples and governments.

Chancoso and her fellow delegates said the scarcity of indigenous representatives at the conference undermined its ability to address their concerns.

"Now, under this declaration, there are two people, the ones that are recognized in international law and others that are not, ones that are first class people and ones that are second class people," she said.

Muhlai, representing the pygmies, saw Durban as an opportunity to tell the world how they are discriminated against in law, how their ancestral lands have been stolen or destroyed by war, and how they are denied access to education and medical care.

"We hope that this World Conference Against Racism will bring something positive to our life as indigenous people," Muhlai said. "I think that ... we still have the right to respect and to life as everybody."

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, however, defended the conference outcome. Dr. Robinson added that indigenous peoples did get some concessions in the language of the text. It calls for greater resources for indigenous peoples and recognizes, for the first time, that there are many indigenous peoples rather than one people spread around the world.

"One of the goals of this conference was really to have a focus on indigenous peoples," she said. "Yes, the indigenous peoples want more, of course they do, but I still think this was a valuable conference for them."

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