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Joint submission on COVID-19 to the OHCHR - HRC45

45th regular session of the Human Rights Council
14 September to 2 October 2020
Agenda Item 2
Oral update by the HC, oral updates on COVID19

IWGIA and the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) applaud the OHCHR for recognizing the specific vulnerabilities of Indigenous Peoples during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the rights of indigenous peoples presented in the 45th session of the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/45/22). Through this submission we would like to elaborate on this point.

Since late 2019, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has spread across the world and made plain the continued vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples (IPs). Where statistical data is available, it shows that IPs are among those most affected within the States they inhabit[1]. The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting IPs (especially women, IPs with disabilities and the elders), exacerbating underlying structural inequalities and pervasive discrimination. COVID-19 acts as a “threat multiplier” that compounds the effects of systemic and daily acts of discrimination on IPs’ fundamental human rights and freedoms. Pervasive structural violence – such as social marginalization, restricted access to natural resources, and a lack of political recognition – contribute towards the life-threatening risks for entire indigenous communities across the world. Insufficient access to basic health care services, sanitation, and limited internet for online education platforms are some of the structural problems impacting indigenous communities’ capabilities to cope with this pandemic. IPs are now particularly threatened by poorer health outcomes, exacerbation of their poverty, as well as enhanced instances of stigma, discrimination and violence. However, when communities enjoy their right to self-determination, they have shown their tenacity in creating culturally appropriate and community-led responses to any crisis situation, even COVID-19.

The Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) is closely monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities across its 14 member countries in Asia through continuous reporting and communications with partners on the ground. There are approximately 411 million IPs living across Asia who are confronted with an array of vulnerabilities in the face of COVID-19. IPs in most parts of Asia were already in precarious situations prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; the shrinking of democratic space in Asia in the last few years has made it increasingly difficult in the struggles for policy changes to ensure IPs’ rights to lands, territories and resources. Worse, it has also resulted in backtracking of existing protections for IPs and their lands, as well as increasing violence against, killings and criminalization of land and environmental activists across the region. The 2020 Global Witnesses report revealed the highest number of land and environmental defenders murdered on record in a single year, with 212 people killed in 2019 for peacefully defending their lands and standing up to the destruction of nature.  More than 60% of the defenders killed were IP leaders and activists. The deadliest sector according to the report is the mining sector with 85% of such attacks recorded in Asia. 24 defenders were killed in the logging sector, recording a highest increase since 2018 with 85% more attacks against the defenders. The opposition and legitimate actions by IPs to defend their lands and resources are often met with militarization and repression, resulting in more human rights violations. Overall, access to justice has become very challenging and the human rights situation in Asia is deteriorating.

This critical situation is further exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 crisis; Lockdown measures and restrictions on freedom of movement have negatively affected the IPs human rights defenders, who are no longer able to monitor the situation in their areas, nor document violations, calling on their support networks, access the judicial system, mobilizing the negatively affected communities and organize protests. All these usual strategies to fight inequalities and violations of their rights, have become ineffective due to strict imposition of lockdowns in many Asian countries. In the rehabilitation of the national economies after COVID-19, we see a tendency to an increase in aggressive land-grabbing in IPs’ territories, and the signing of concessions for extractive industries such as coal mining in India without their free, prior and informed consent. Without secure tenure, communities’ territories are at risk of being targeted for their rich reservoirs of natural resources as governments look to cushion the looming global economic recession. Consequently, the COVID pandemic can be leading to a decline in the enforcement of rights, an increase in land-grabbing, and the criminalization of IPs fighting for their fundamental rights over the socio-ecological systems they steward.

We are however currently learning new lessons during the pandemic, which show that the success of pandemic-fighting initiatives can be directly linked to secured rights over lands. In India, there are several examples where Gram Sabhas (village assemblies), with secured community forest resource (CFR) rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), have used revenues generated from collecting Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) to invest in distributing essential food supplies to all village households. In Malaysia, forest-fringe communities and semi-nomadic communities, such as the Jahai and Bateq, have been able to meet their subsistence needs better than settled communities who depend on incomes generated through cash crops. Forest-fringe and the semi-nomadic communities were also able to isolate in the forest while using the abundant resources in healthy forests to support their needs. In Indonesia, AIPP member organisation Perempuan AMAN has reported how the varying degrees of land rights recognition over customary territories – secured tenure, granted concession and no rights – has influenced communities’ ability to respond to the risks associated with COVID-19. As demonstrated in Malaysia, Indonesia and India, community initiatives are undermined when the rights to their traditional lands are either poorly enforced or not recognized.

What we are now witnessing is that the lockdowns to contain the novel corona virus have made IPs more vulnerable to losing their land. Illegal logging and land grabs are increasing. Governments across Asia have used COVID-19 as a cover to pass regressive legislations with potentially devastating impacts on IPs. Legislative developments across both South and Southeast Asia under COVID-19 occur along three themes:

  1. Opportunistic advancements in controversial legislative processes that pre-date COVID,
  2. Corporate Stimulus and Compensation,
  3. Crisis “solutions” that undermine IPs rights.

A theme that transgresses these categories is the systematic exclusion of civil society and their broader critical participation in decision-making processes. The health risks associated with the expression of the right to freedom of assembly during a pandemic should not be abused by state actors in the pushing of controversial laws through national legislative architectures.

In the Philippines, Duterte’s government[2] has been more concerned with distributing anti-communist propaganda, red-tagging Indigenous leaders and activists, and targeting Indigenous-run humanitarian initiatives than providing necessary and adequate aid and food supplies. The Philippine government has also used COVID to continue grabbing the lands of IPs, removing protests, and passing anti-peoples’ laws. The House of Representatives passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which President Duterte subsequently signed. This was done against international critique that included the OHCHR. The Anti-Terrorism Act blurs the lines between legal activism, dissent and terrorism fuelling widespread fears of continued and heightened abuses of power by Duterte’s government.   Duterte even went as far as giving a ‘shoot to kill order’ targeting individuals and organisations seen as ‘troublemakers’, a general term that includes ‘communists’, ‘leftists’ or anyone seen as opposing his rule, including Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Defenders. Such an order turns these important defenders into open targets for Philippine police and armed forces.

Another key example is the Omnibus Law in Indonesia, which would see essential protections of IPs and their territories rolled back in favour of an extractive agenda.

In India, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued an advisory instructing States and Union Territories to restrict human-wildlife interactions, potentially impacting up to 4 million IPs living on the periphery of Protected Areas – allegedly to stop any virus to spread from animals to humans. Simultaneously, the MoEFCC attempted to amend the Environmental Impact Assessment (2006) rules, exempting several project categories from requiring environmental clearance and diluting the provisions for obtaining written consent from the Gram Sabha as required under the FRA. AIPP has received numerous reports of evictions and violence by forest officials during India’s government-imposed lockdown. One case, on the 24th of April, 2020 in the Kalahandi district of Odisha, 32 Kondh IP villages were violently evicted, in direct violation of the villagers’ rights under the FRA as well as under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Atrocity Act. Several huts were set ablaze by the forest officials. India’s MoEFCC has encouraged the separation of IPs from essential livelihood-generating Protected Areas while fast-tracking development projects within and around them. This is particularly prevalent in India’s agenda for coal commercialization of the hitherto nationalized coal sector.

In the Bandarban Hill District of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, Indigenous Jumma villagers had 5,000 acres of rubber plantations burnt by land grabbers with political affiliations. The illegal occupation of community Jhum lands in the CHT has accelerated amid the COVID-19 crisis with an additional 4,500 acres being grabbed in April 2020. Furthermore, Bangladesh Indigenous Women’s Network has documented several cases of threats, intimidation, and harassment from security forces of their women leaders, preventing them from providing aid, assistance or collecting food produce from swidden fields. The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture announced that the government will utilize “idle” ancestral lands as part of the Plant Plant Plant program to “to enhance food security concerns amidst the country’s COVID-19 outbreak”.

In Cambodia, local partners are providing worrying reports of an increase in illegal logging and threats to Indigenous Human Rights Defenders. AIPP’s partners have reported that the lockdowns have provided cover for illegal logging and land encroachments which have links to powerful political figures.

Similar circumstances have been observed by members in Nepal, where an increase in poaching and illegal timber extraction are taking place within conservation zones. AIPP partner organisation CEMSOJ, has highlighted how protected areas have themselves exacerbated the threats facing IP communities pre-COVID, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, and wishes to draw attention to the need to include communities in conservation efforts henceforth. In Nepal, large development and infrastructure projects have been allowed to continue. AIPP member and IWGIA partner LAHURNIP has reported violent confrontations between IPs attempting to lockdown and protect their communities and transportation companies, providing building materials to a controversial hydropower project, breaking through their barricades.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of indigenous human rights defenders has been key in raising the alarm when measures were inadequate or contrary to international human rights law. Indigenous human rights defenders are central allies in addressing the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Indigenous human rights defenders in Asia, particularly women defenders, who are taking legitimate actions to protect their rights, are facing increasing risks and reprisals. The impact of the global health crisis has increased risks for human rights defenders from indigenous communities without secure tenure over their lands and territories.[3] 

Despite the efforts in capacity building, technical and financial support in response to cases, community mobilization, advocacy, and submission of complaints etc., human rights violations have not taken a backseat. Non-implementation of existing national legal protection for example, Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 section 11(1) and 12 in Malaysia, Forest Rights Act in India, and Chittagong Hill Tract Peace Accord 1997 in Bangladesh of protections for indigenous communities and constructive agreements with IPs’ bodies contribute to the problem.


We call on the OHCHR to engage in a dialogue with State actors to promote that measures are taken to:

  • Refrain from taking the opportunity of COVID19 emergency to militarize territories, repress defenders and increase pressure in areas where communities have already been under threat due to conflicts or predatory economic activities
  • Use public and private communications to emphasize that the role of human rights defenders is as important as ever and that reprisals against them will not be tolerated.
  • Dedicate resources to identifying increased reprisals-related risks across investments, operations and supply chains, and take action to prevent and mitigate any risks identified, and to support human rights defenders globally.
  • Commit to putting Indigenous Peoples rights as well as land and environmental rights, and those who protect them, at the centre of any response to COVID-19. Any response will have to be developed in consultation with indigenous peoples, afro-descendants, local communities and other human rights defenders. It should be implemented by indigenous peoples, respect their cultural diversity and build on traditional medicine and knowledge systems.
  • Include indigenous peoples’ representatives, leaders and customary institutions and ensure respect to their free, prior and informed consent in the prevention, development, and implementation and monitoring of measure to address COVID-19.
  • Ensure all information in indigenous and local languages in public announcement and communication related to COVID-19.
  • Make sure that communities have access to clean water and sanitation in remote areas to avoid risk of infection.
  • Ensure all restrictions and/or surveillance introduced to support the relief effort in response to the Covid-19 pandemic be repealed as soon as the pandemic passes
  • Immediately address the risks of further expansion of COVID19 in indigenous lands and operate quick responses to provide relief, medical care, medical tests to communities in need.
  • Considering the threat of future pandemics and the real possibility of COVID-19 impact prolonging, governments should take concrete steps towards introducing culturally appropriate context-specific health and education systems that are established within community governance systems. Context-specific health and education systems shall have robust facilities that meets the needs of communities, including facilities that incorporate the specific needs of persons with disabilities.
  • Ensure that governments expand IP specific data - disaggregation by ethnicity, gender, disability, and age - to monitor and assess of the impact of all interventions in partnership wit


[1] Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General, Human Rights Council Forty-fifth session 14 September–2 October 2020, A/HRC/45/22

[2] Indigenous peoples are already being red-tagged and labelled as communist sympathisers, imprisoned for defending their ancestral homes against the construction of extractive and infrastructure projects and prevented from organising, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is likely to be used to quell dissent and any criticism of the government, including those by IP communities and their organisations.


[3] Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General, Human Rights Council Forty-fifth session 14 September–2 October 2020, A/HRC/45/22



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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