Collective rights are human rights – what the world should learn from John Chau and the Sentinelese  

John Allan Chau / The Guardian

John Allan Chau, photo credit: The Guardian/Social Media/Reuters

Collective rights are human rights – what the world should learn from John Chau and the Sentinelese  

In November the world reacted with outrage after Christian missionary John Allan Chau was killed by members of the indigenous inhabitants of North Sentinel island. Perhaps surprisingly however most of the anger was not directed at the Sentinelese, but at John himself. There has been a sea change in how the world views indigenous rights, but we must continue to strengthen the world’s understanding of collective rights.

The Sentinelese are one of the most remote indigenous tribes in the world. They occupy North Sentinel Island in the eastern Indian Ocean and are known for chasing away visitors with bows and arrows; violently resisting contact with anyone from the outside world. It is therefore unsurprising that when John Allan Chau first attempted to approach the island, seeking to convert the inhabitants to Christianity, he was shot at and forced to retreat. Despite their obvious hostility, he returned a few days later and this time did not escape. When his guides returned to collect him, they saw tribesmen guarding a burial ground and it is assumed that Chau was shot and killed by them, and then buried on the island.

The reaction to the news story was immediate. Although some were sympathetic to Chau, many were outraged and denounced his mission as unthinking or downright wrong.

“The history of outsiders’ relations with the indigenous people of the Andamans has a clear pattern – colonisation, exploitation and eventual extermination. If we are to learn anything from our past, it is that the Sentinelese should be left alone” said Ajay Saini in the Guardian.

“Tribes like the Sentinelese face catastrophe unless their land is protected. I hope this tragedy acts as a wakeup call to the Indian authorities to avert another disaster and properly protect the lands of both the Sentinelese, and the other Andaman tribes, from further invaders.” said Sophie Grig of Survival International.

Their anger was not misplaced. Other populations of indigenous peoples have been decimated after being contacted by outsiders. Exposure to common diseases against which they have no inbuilt immunity has caused whole communities to disappear.

The Sentinelese are understandably wary of strangers. In relatively recent history, members of their community were kidnapped and subjected to tests. The tribespeople have since made it abundantly clear that they wish to be left alone.

The right to self-determination - in this case the right to be left alone - was enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. However, the right to self-determination is much more than just the right to be left alone. It is a collective right to autonomy, to self-government and to cultural development.

Despite self-determination being upheld in international law, many do not fully understand collective rights. Unlike individual human rights which are attributed to people as moral beings, collective rights are held by groups of people. These rights can be controversial because groups are ever changing and there may be conflicts within the group, but collective rights are essential to the continuation of indigenous peoples. The right to self-determination protects communities from being subsumed into the world around them. It is the only effective way to preserve indigenous languages and traditions, and to ensure their cultures are not left to history.

Although the public outcry at the infringement on the rights of the Sentinelese is welcomed by many of us fighting for indigenous rights, the Sentinelese have for the most part been protected. Many other indigenous communities still struggle to assert their rights.

In Peru for example, it is estimated that over 20 million hectares of indigenous peoples’ lands remain unrecognised in the law. The Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya in Peru have suffered violence and intimidation after protesting the grabbing of their land by palm oil company, Plantaciones de Pucallpa S.A.C.

The Sengwer in Kenya have similarly faced violence, including the burning of their homes, after resisting eviction from their lands by their own government in the name of an EU conservation project. 

These are just two of countless examples of the infringement of the right to self-determination which indigenous communities are facing around the world. Despite international law, protection of self-determination on the ground is often weak.

Over the last few decades there has a been hard won shift in how indigenous rights are viewed.

 “The struggle for the self-determination of all peoples will go on for a long time, perhaps for ever, but the principles are now accepted. That is a huge change.” said Marcus Colchester, Senior Policy Advisor at the Forest Peoples Programme.

I would even go one step further and say that in the case of the Sentinelese, the right to self-determination has been celebrated. Those working on indigenous rights must be emboldened. Now that the world is looking in our direction, it is our responsibility to seize the moment and educate the world on the collective rights of indigenous peoples.

Collective rights are human rights.

If you support the Sentinelese, you should also support the Sengwer of Kenya and the Shipibo of Peru. They too, and many others alongside them, face threats to their human rights.