Friday, September 18, 2009

Bar Council Press Release: Lack of political will to uphold rights of indigenous peoples

Malaysian Bar Council

Press Release

Lack of political will to uphold rights of indigenous peoples

The Malaysian Bar is disappointed at the Government’s continuing lack of political will to promote and protect the welfare and rights of indigenous peoples throughout Malaysia. The Government’s inaction makes a mockery of its vote in favour of adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007 (“the UN Declaration”).

Most recently, the Government refused to make public the report of the National Task Force established to investigate the allegations of sexual abuse against Penan women and girls. This refusal flouts democratic principles of transparency and accountability. The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development finally made the report publicly available only after pressure from various interest groups.

We are further disappointed that despite the Inspector-General of Police’s pledge of full support for a joint police-NGO investigative mission, the Sarawak police have now reportedly stated that the funds allocated for the project are not sufficient to fund the participation of NGO representatives.

The sexual abuse faced by the Penans is but one of a multitude of human rights violations that indigenous communities face on an ongoing basis, and which are inextricably inter-linked. Most indigenous persons are not able to fully enjoy their fundamental human rights because their traditions, customs and values are being eroded and their needs have been long neglected.

A crucial first step for the Government, in fulfilling its state obligation, is to formally recognise, protect and guarantee the right of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands throughout the country and to gazette such ancestral lands as reserved areas for them. If necessary, land laws must be amended to achieve this.

We are concerned that many indigenous communities still live without basic amenities and infrastructure. It is within the context of the deprivation of their rights to ancestral lands and access to basic services that indigenous peoples have become vulnerable to sexual abuse and other violations of human rights. We strongly urge the Government to perform its duty by taking concrete steps to improve the welfare of indigenous peoples.

Finally, we denounce the wholly unnecessary arrest of 15 Sarawakian indigenous leaders on 16 September, who were reportedly detained as they attempted to deliver a memorandum to the Chief Minister to protest the building of hydro-electric dams that would adversely affect their communities.

The manner in which our nation deals with the needs and rights of these communities is a reflection of our commitment to democracy and human rights. In this, our leaders have failed.

Change is possible. More can, and must, be done.

We therefore echo our earlier call, made in a resolution that was unanimously adopted at the Malaysian Bar’s 63rd Annual General Meeting on 15 March 2009, that the Federal and State Governments, as well as all public and private enterprises and individuals, respect and protect the rights of indigenous peoples pursuant to the UN Declaration, and not act in any manner inconsistent with those rights.

Ragunath Kesavan
Malaysian Bar

18 September 2009

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