The Human Rights Situation of Indigenous Forest Peoples in Central Africa Statement by the Forest Peoples Programme made to the 40th Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights 15-29 November 2006, Banjul, The Gambia

The Human Rights Situation of Indigenous Forest Peoples in Central Africa Statement by the Forest Peoples Programme made to the 40th Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights 15-29 November 2006, Banjul, The Gambia

Madam Chair, Honourable Commissioners, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for this opportunity to address the Commission on  behalf of the Forest Peoples Programme. May I first commend the Commission for its ongoing work on indigenous peoples and in particular the excellent sensitisation seminar on the rights of indigenous peoples in Africa organised by the Commission’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which took place in Yaounde, Cameroon in September 2006.

Thanks to such initiatives the human rights situation of indigenous forest people in Central Africa is becoming more widely known and better understood. However, widespread and serious violations of their human rights continue on a daily basis. I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a few urgent aspects of the human rights situation of indigenous forest peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

DRC neither recognizes nor protects indigenous forest peoples’ land rights and these rights are frequently violated in practice. Notably, DRC enacted a new Forest Code in 2002 without consulting or seeking the consent of the affected indigenous forest communities. Despite a moratorium on logging concessions issued the same year, at least one hundred and three logging concessions are presently in operation in and around indigenous territories and plans are being implemented to increase the area available for logging to double its present size, posing an immediate threat to indigenous forest communities. Similarly, national parks – established on the traditional lands and territories of indigenous peoples without consultation or their free, prior and informed consent – have caused the forced displacement of large numbers of indigenous peoples, the majority of whom are now landless and destitute.

International attention is urgently needed as these violations of indigenous peoples’ rights in DRC are widespread and the impact of the violations is immediate, ongoing and, in some cases, irreversible.

Another urgent and unaddressed human rights atrocity in DRC is the brutal, systematic rape of civilian women, including Batwa women, by soldiers and militiamen during the country’s recent civil war.These vicious attacks left thousands of Congolese women traumatized and infected with HIV/AIDS. Rape victims from indigenous forest communities in DRC have had their rights doubly violated by virtue of their extremely poor access to adequate health and health services. Many are landless after being evicted from their ancestral forests to make way for the national park, leaving them poor, undernourished and with poor hygiene. These conditions have combined to render indigenous  women particularly prone to infection and unable to fight illness. Even where healthcare facilities exist, many people do not use them because they cannot pay for consultations and medicines, do not have the identity cards needed to travel or obtain hospital treatment, or are subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment. Batwa communities are often isolated, with prohibitive walking distances between their homes and the nearest free antiretroviral clinic. Special outreach measures are thus urgently needed if proper medical treatment is ever to reach these Batwa women.

In Rwanda, the existence of indigenous peoples continues to be denied by the government, in violation of the rights of the indigenous Batwa under Article 20 of the African Charter. One of the most urgent impacts of this denial has been the failure or refusal of the Ministry of Justice to register as an NGO the largest and most representative indigenous organisation, Communaute des Autochtones Rwandais (CAURWA), in violation of the Batwa’s freedom of association. The state continues to deny the Batwa the right to retain the word ‘autochtone’ in their name and incorporating statutes, asserting that such terminology is ethnically divisive and therefore genocidal. CAURWA’s critical work with Batwa communities has been stalled as a result of continually having to work under temporary registration documents. The organisation’s current temporary registration expires in early December 2006, leaving the Batwa vulnerable yet again to the dissolution of their largest representative organisation. This organisational uncertainty has also impacted CAURWA’s ability to secure international funding for its work and places its observer status with international bodies such as the African Commission at risk.

The Forest Peoples Programme respectfully requests that the Commission:

  1. organise a mission of enquiry to DRC to examine the situation of indigenous forest peoples in that country;
  2. urge the government of DRC to suspend all logging activities until such time as a thorough study of the land rights of indigenous forest peoples is conducted and such rights are recognized and protected in Congolese law;
  3. urge the government of DRC to provide free emergency health care directly to isolated indigenous communities, and in particular to victims of rape and people infected with HIV/AIDS;
  4. urge the government of Rwanda to permanently register CAURWA as an NGO without requiring it to change its identity as the representative organisation of the indigenous Batwa.

Thank you, Madam Chair.