On 11 May 2016, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, held a dialogue on Indigenous peoples’ rights and conservation activities with conservation NGOs during the 15th UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The Dialogue provided an opportunity for conservation NGOs to provide the Special Rapporteur with information for a report on the issues that she will be submitting to the UN General Assembly in 2016. The Special Rapporteur will also transmit her recommendations on conservation and indigenous peoples’ rights to the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September 2016.
Several large conservation NGOs, as well as Natural Justice, attended the Dialogue. Among many issues addressed, one organization mentioned the need for practical guidance on multi-actor involvement in conservation initiatives, and, in particular, best practices regarding indigenous peoples. Another noted that there is a continuing gap between policies – both international and organizational – and project design, implementation and monitoring. Related to this it was noted that there is a need to develop a better understanding of customary governance of the environment and the natural resources that indigenous peoples steward and rely upon. Others agreed that monitoring and evaluation of conservation activities represents a challenge.
Natural Justice had the opportunity to intervene, and we noted the work we are doing to, among other things, identify the international human rights responsibilities and obligations of conservation actors. It is generally accepted that States have the primary duty to protect human rights. However, NGOs have a responsibility to respect human rights that is analogous to the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights as enumerated in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
We noted that this conclusion is important for two reasons. First, it means that the policies of conservation NGOs regarding indigenous peoples should flow from international human rights sources, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ILO Convention No. 169. In other words, conservation NGOs should develop such policies not as a voluntary exercise but rather as part of satisfying their international human rights responsibilities. Second, if NGOs take the position that they do have the responsibility to respect human rights as enumerated in the UN Declaration and other international instruments, there could be a positive influence on States as well, which often ignore these instruments despite the fact that they have adopted or ratified them.
The Dialogue closed with the Special Rapporteur noting that there have been positive outcomes of indigenous peoples allying themselves with conservation organizations. At the same time, the reality is that problems regarding conservation activities are occurring as well. The Special Rapporteur looked forward to continuing discussions as she works toward finalizing her report for the UN General Assembly.