The land rights of indigenous peoples and human rights of minority communities were discussed in Kampala, Uganda on 4th March 2011 during the first East Africa Regional Dialogue on Minority Community Rights. The event came as a result of the collaboration of many national and international organisations including the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda, Forest Peoples Programme, Minority Rights Group International, Institute for Law & Environmental Governance, Uganda Land Alliance and Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment. The dialogue was attended by representatives of indigenous peoples and minority communities from throughout the East African region as well as government and civil society organisations from Uganda and Kenya. Honoured guests included the Minister of State for Gender and Culture from Uganda and the Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, former Commissioner of the African Commission Bahame Tom Nyanduga, representatives from the African Commission’s Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities, as well as indigenous leaders from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania.
Discussions were informed by, on the one hand, the international human rights standards pertaining to indigenous peoples and, on the other hand, the rights of minority communities. The recent landmark decision of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights regarding the land rights of the Endorois, an indigenous people and minority community in Kenya, guided the debates. The Endorois contested their eviction by the Kenyan government from their ancestral land around Lake Bogoria, which took place without their free, prior and informed consent and without adequate compensation. In a landmark decision adopted by the African Union on 2 February 2010, the African Commission examined the Endorois’ case and declared their expulsion illegal. It found that the Kenyan government had violated fundamental rights of the Endorois people protected under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other international instruments. The dissemination of international law standards on indigenous peoples and minorities during the meeting led the Ugandan Minister of State for Gender and Culture, Rukia Nakaddama, to stress the need for further information sharing on this “well researched” area of law. She underlined the relevance and usefulness of such dialogue, especially in the context of the final drafting stages of Uganda’s new National Land Policy.
This crucial decision of the African Commission reminds governments in the region, and beyond, of their responsibilities towards indigenous peoples and minorities, many of whom continue to live under harsh conditions. The Batwa, for example, an indigenous people of south west Uganda were rendered landless when the forests they inhabited (Bwindi, Mgahinga and Echuya in southwestern Uganda) were gazetted as national parks and a forest reserve, respectively, as late as the early 1990s. The Batwa representatives who attended the dialogue directly engaged with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and also Uganda’s Minister of State for Gender and Culture, who assured the dialogue that the Batwa would be compensated for their evictions from their ancestral homes through a programme currently being developed by the Ugandan government.
In the closing session the dialogue agreed to continue developing and expanding regional approaches that seek to link indigenous peoples and minorities with state agencies in an effort to work towards an increased respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities in the East African Region. The main issues received wide coverage in national media.