Working to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples

Minority Rights Group International campaigns worldwide with around 130 partners in over 60 countries to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, can make their voices heard.

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EMBARGO: 00.01 GMT + 1, 12 July 2016

In 2016, Minority Rights Group International’s flagship annual report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples focuses on culture and heritages. This story pack features a collection of films, articles and photos that highlight the issues covered by the volume.

Executive summary

Culture is not only a central element of minority and indigenous identities, but also underpins a host of other areas such as health, education, livelihoods and spirituality. Yet the right to culture has until recently received limited recognition and still does not enjoy the same legal protections as many other rights. Despite this, the effects of cultural attrition or repression can be devastating for these communities, often deepening the impacts of expropriation, hate crime and other incidents of discrimination.

The pressures facing minority and indigenous cultures remain as acute as ever. Conflict, forced displacement and the destruction of physical heritage all pose threats to communities across the world, with traditions, beliefs and sites such as places of worship actively targeted to demoralize or terrorize a particular group. While militant groups and extremists are frequently the perpetrators, many states engage in similar acts of destruction or repression for political or economic gain: for example, the expropriation of indigenous territory to accommodate plantations, dams and other developments.

Often, however, the forces undermining minority and indigenous cultures are less direct but still powerful barriers to the continued vitality of their customs and traditions. Assimilation, for instance, besides being forced through official restrictions on language, art and other forms of expression, can also be experienced more subtly through globalization, mainstream media and a desire to avoid discrimination. As a result, minorities and indigenous peoples may feel obliged to move away from distinct aspects of their own cultures, even in countries with a stated commitment to diversity and multiculturalism. Migration, urbanization and other factors, whether voluntary or forced, can also lead to the loss of languages, traditional knowledge and other important cultural forms.

The legacy of cultural erosion and repression for minorities and indigenous peoples can be profound. From disproportionate levels of suicide and mental illness to impoverishment and lower life expectancy, the implications of this loss can be deep and last far beyond the immediate loss to affect multiple generations. Indeed, for many communities the disappearance of their heritage is now irreversible and looks set to continue. Within the next century, for instance, it is projected that anything between 50 and 90 per cent of the world’s 7,000 mostly indigenous languages will have died out. Similarly, restrictions on worship and belief have had a chilling effect on cultural expression for many religious minorities, particularly in the Middle East, where some countries have seen their Jewish populations diminish in recent decades from tens of thousands to just a few dozen.

Nevertheless, some norms can have profoundly negative implications for certain members of the community, especially women, and tradition can be used to reinforce existing hierarchies. In extreme cases, when a particular cultural practice is in violation of international law, states may be obliged to intervene to ensure that individual human rights are not violated as a result. Indeed, in many cases minority and indigenous women are themselves challenging narrow interpretations of their community’s traditions and actively creating alternative interpretations that support rather than weaken their participation in public life.

As this year’s volume of State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples illustrates, however, minority and indigenous culture is not only a threatened resource but also a force of empowerment for communities in their struggle for recognition. Across the world, marginalized groups have mobilized and strengthened their sense of identity through reconnecting with their rich cultural heritage. From art, dance and drama to language, dress and cuisine, the complex facets of minority and indigenous culture have in many cases helped increase the social and political visibility of these communities, too. Nor are these instances of cultural revival focused solely on past traditions and achievements. Frequently, in the process of engaging with their cultures, communities have reinvented and revitalized them. As a result, they remain a vital element in their identities today – a fact all the more remarkable given the widespread history of discrimination and repression they have faced.

Regional overviews

In Africa, many minorities and indigenous peoples who have managed to preserve their ways of life for centuries are now facing the disappearance of their cultural traditions, often in the name of development. Actions such as evicting them from the land and resources on which they depend, deprive them of livelihoods, food, medicine and other essential needs, so pushing them further into poverty.

For many communities in East Africa and the Horn, such as Kenya’s forest-dwelling Sengwer or the numerous indigenous peoples residing in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, culture is intimately linked to access to land. Land grabbing and forced evictions in these and other countries, often to accommodate energy projects, conservation programmes and tourism parks, have not only deprived them of shelter, livelihoods and essential resources, but also threaten the very basis of their identity. Elsewhere in the region, for example South Sudan, ethnic violence and conflicts over limited resources have led to the wholesale displacement of some communities, in the process disrupting their cultural traditions and practices.

In West and Central Africa, protracted conflict and inter-communal violence has meant that in many countries identity and culture remain contested and potentially volatile issues. This is particularly evident in Central African Republic, where targeted attacks and the continued presence of militias have created deep divisions between its Christian and Muslim communities, uprooting hundreds of thousands of people and forcing around 80 per cent of its Muslim population out of the country. Elsewhere in the region, too, mass displacement and insecurity has destroyed the fabric of communities and left long-established ways of life in limbo. During elections and other periods of unrest, as in Côte d’Ivoire ahead of its 2015 elections, underlying tensions around different identities can reignite. As in East Africa, land rights also remain a potent issue for many indigenous communities in particular, who continue to face the threat of eviction from the ancestral lands that have sustained them for generations.

Southern Africa’s minority and indigenous communities still struggle with the legacy of the region’s colonial past and the concentration of power among particular political elites. This has often been manifested in a range of rights violations – from lack of access to education and non-recognition of languages to control of ancestral lands and traditional livelihoods – that have undermined the rich cultural traditions of many communities. While in many countries significant strides have been made towards more equitable development, certain groups – such as San hunter-gatherer communities indigenous to much of Southern Africa – remain highly marginalized. In this context, the preservation of cultural practices and traditions remains an important part of a broader struggle for rights and recognition.

In the Americas, the continent’s troubled history of colonization and slavery continue to be felt in the marginalization and invisibility of its indigenous and Afro-descendant populations. In recent years, a renewed interest in their rich cultural traditions has contributed to a greater sense of empowerment and acceptance within their societies. But while this has been reflected in a revival of many artistic practices, it has also led to accusations of cultural appropriation as traditional dress, music and other art forms have been exploited by states and businesses for commercial or political gain.

The wide range of communities in North America, including black, indigenous, Latino, Arab and Asian minorities, together contribute to the region’s rich cultural diversity. Nevertheless, many minority and indigenous communities also face a multitude of challenges to maintain their traditions. This is due in large part to the continued inequalities they face, rooted in past discrimination and the indifference or even hostility certain cultural expressions are met with. Social dislocation, poverty and the absence of supportive spaces to nurture these traditions, not to mention the pressures of assimilation, can all contribute to the disappearance or silencing of minorities and indigenous cultures. Furthermore, despite the region’s cultural diversity, the legacy of oppression is still felt in the misuse or even mockery of many traditions – for example, the use of tribal names and symbols for sports teams, fashion and fancy dress.

In recent decades, many states in Central America have enacted new Constitutions and legal frameworks that provide greater protection to indigenous and Afro-descendant rights, including culture. In practice, these measures have not been sufficient to prevent continued discrimination and violence against these communities, especially around such issues as political exclusion and land rights violations, frequently associated with extractive industries such as mining and other forms of development such as agricultural plantations. In addition, periods of civil conflict in countries such as Guatemala have also decimated the cultural systems of communities targeted by governments or militias. In this challenging environment, minority and indigenous communities face a constant struggle to preserve their traditional practices, languages and unique worldviews. Nevertheless, these also provide an important platform to mobilize and assert their distinct identity against the pressures of assimilation.

In South America, similarly, the European invasion devastated the region’s extraordinary pre-Colombian civilizations and decimated its native populations – a trauma that overshadows its indigenous communities today. Despite their decline, the older civilizations continue to show their influence in many aspects of culture in South America, not least in languages and in symbols of nationality. In addition, the trafficking of millions of enslaved Africans has resulted in a sizeable Afro-descendant minority with rich and varied traditions that, despite forced assimilation and repression, have also survived. Although these traditions were suppressed or maintained in secret, there is now a resurgence of interest in Afro-descendant and indigenous culture across the region, linked to these communities’ broader struggle for recognition and respect. Nevertheless, the benefits of this development can be double-edged: for instance, the exploitation of communities by urban boutiques or galleries, with many indigenous artists underpaid and objectified. Globalization has also brought new challenges to the already threatened cultures and heritage of the region’s indigenous peoples, with young people, particularly, undergoing cultural change through access to media and communication. Furthermore, the cultures of these communities not only include social expressions such as music, arts, language or dress – the areas most likely to be celebrated by others – but also extend to spiritual practices and their relationship to their lands, wildlife and eco-systems: the very resources increasingly under threat of expropriation or destruction from state or corporate development. In Brazil, for example, the apparent celebration of indigenous culture ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has occurred alongside continued land grabbing and human rights violations against these communities.

Across Asia and Oceania, host to a remarkable range of religions, languages and ethnicities, the situation for minorities and indigenous peoples varies widely. Yet a persistent challenge is the challenge of preserving distinct traditions and beliefs that differ from a particular form of state-prescribed nationalism – a definition frequently linked to authoritarianism, land and resources. And as communities are uprooted not only by forced displacement but also migration and urbanization, many are struggling to maintain their identities in new and unfamiliar contexts.

In Central Asia, tensions between neighbouring states, inter-communal violence and state authoritarianism have meant that the cultural traditions of religious and ethnic minorities in different countries in the region have been subjected to intense scrutiny. To a greater or lesser degree, every government in the region has staked its legitimacy on its image as a guardian and reviver of cultural traditions that are indispensable to the state’s survival in the modern world. Though discrimination based on ethnic, national or religious identity may be legally prohibited, in practice appeals to ‘tradition’ can be used to justify discrimination as well as to protect citizens from it. Amid increased security concerns about extremist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the repression of Islamic political parties and organizations has been accompanied in countries such as Tajikistan by broader crackdowns on personal matters such as clothing. The tendency for states in the region to promote ‘unity’ through a narrow and homogenized nationalism has also encouraged aggressive prohibitions of particular religious practices among minorities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, resulting in prosecutions and deportations.

South Asia covers a wide variety of minorities and indigenous peoples, spanning many different languages, religions and ethnicities. But while this diversity has long enriched the region, it also provides a continuous source of division in countries struggling with religious extremism, caste-based hierarchies and an increasingly exclusionary nationalism. This has left little space for minority and indigenous communities in many states: from targeted attacks against places of worship and the repression of traditional livelihoods to endangered languages and the prohibition of ancient practices, culture is frequently on the front line of inter-communal conflicts or government crackdowns. Poorly regulated top-down development is another threat that has often sacrificed the fabric of established indigenous communities by displacing them from their ancestral land, in the process devastating their rich and irreplaceable heritage. While across the region efforts are ongoing to improve stability through legal and political reforms, an essential element in achieving greater cohesion is to promote understanding and respect for the multitude of cultures coexisting in the region.

In Southeast Asia, one of the most significant barriers to the realization of minority and indigenous cultural rights is ethno-religious prejudice, often based on exclusive nationalist agendas whereby the cultures of minorities and indigenous peoples are, for the most part, neither recognized nor respected. Although there have been efforts to make national identities inclusive, in many countries across the region discriminatory policy and practices remain. Thailand, for example, has an almost exclusive Thai-language policy in schools. Officials have refused mother-tongue education reforms, arguing that this would pose a threat to the centrality of Thai language; this has led to poor performance and high drop-out rates among minorities and indigenous peoples. In Burma, Buddhist extremists are leading campaigns against Muslim cultural practices, such as women’s head coverings, with the implicit support of the government. While minority or indigenous cultural manifestations are often actively targeted by extremists, another challenge is that their traditions and identities may simply be overlooked. For example, in a region where so many of the economies are based on natural resource extraction, the importance of these territories to the cultural beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples is often side-lined by decision-makers promoting development – a process that not only displaces them from their ancestral lands, but also excludes them from vital livelihoods and spiritual sites.

While the experiences of minority and indigenous communities in East Asia vary widely, many share a history of forced assimilation and the erosion of their traditional cultures. In Japan and Taiwan, for instance, the legacy of state discrimination and land grabbing has left indigenous peoples struggling to sustain their cultures. Besides access to ancestral territories, a crucial element in the survival of their traditions is their ability to maintain their languages, many of which are increasingly under threat. In this regard, official measures, such as the approval in November 2015 of a draft law to promote indigenous languages in Taiwan, are much needed steps by the state to reverse decades of decline. Nevertheless, despite successful activism from communities across the region, governments continue to undermine the vitality of minority and indigenous cultures through insensitive or inappropriate development. This is particularly the case in China, where large-scale urbanization programmes combine in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang with a highly securitized attitude towards local residents. Indeed, in the ongoing conflict between the state and minority communities, cultural and religious practices are often actively repressed by the state – an approach that serves only to fuel further tensions.

The Oceania region is distinctive in that many of the smaller Pacific island states have a high proportion of indigenous peoples that form majority populations. At the same time, in other countries of the region such as Australia, New Caledonia (Kanaky) and New Zealand (Aotearoa), colonial settlement and immigration have reduced indigenous populations to a minority in their own lands. Though across the region as a whole the indigenous population remains sizeable, continued poverty and exclusion have eroded many aspects of their rich cultural heritage. This encompasses not only sites of cultural importance but also the continuity and promotion of intangible traditional practices, including the transmission of native languages, whether as a means of communication or for cultural purposes. The pressures facing indigenous peoples have been exacerbated by the destruction or degradation of local environments and eco-systems due to natural disasters and the effects of climate change: as many communities have close spiritual connections and complex social systems attached to the land, these pressures can disrupt cultural systems as well as livelihoods, food security and health. Migration is also having an impact on oceanic indigenous cultures, as a high percentage of Pacific Islanders now live abroad or have moved from rural areas to cities. These processes can lead to significant upheaval and undermine traditional systems, though in many cases indigenous migrants have managed to maintain connections with their places of origin.

Alongside the protracted effect of the financial crisis, Europe has been reeling from a number of high-profile terrorist attacks as well as the emergence of a crisis that has seen more than a million refugees and migrants enter the region, including a large proportion of Syrians displaced by the conflict. Amid fears of further attacks inspired by the militant group ISIS, many governments have increasingly seen the swelling number of refugees as an issue of security rather than one of humanitarian protection. These developments have not only impacted on the treatment of refugees and migrants by many European countries, but also caused a shift in popular attitudes towards ethnic and religious minorities in general that has contributed to the rise of right-wing political organizations across the region, with actively hostile policies towards Muslims, Jews, Roma and other minorities. In this context, concerns around integration, assimilation and cultural difference have become increasingly divisive, reflected at times in suspicion and surveillance of minority spaces such as mosques, as well as an increased focus on language, social values and other issues. While these concerns have shaped official policy, they have also driven hate crime and hate speech across Europe. Indeed, many community members have been targeted solely on the basis of their identity, while places of worship, graveyards, cultural centres and other sites have also been attacked.

Events in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continue to be dominated by ISIS and its concerted campaign of targeted violence across the region. Despite losing significant swathes of territory under its control in Iraq and Syria, ISIS nevertheless still controls large areas and subjects millions of civilians to a brutal rule of violence, threats and intimidation. Minorities in particular, such as Christians, Turkmen and Yezidis, have been targeted with human rights abuses including looting, house burning, torture, sexual assault and murder, in the process displacing entire communities from areas where they have lived for centuries. ISIS has also attracted wide publicity for its destruction of ancient heritage sites such as significant parts of UNESCO-listed Palmyra.

However, this is only part of a much broader assault on churches, mosques and shrines belonging to religious and ethnic minorities that continued throughout the year. Nevertheless, the challenges facing minorities and the survival of their rich cultural traditions are not confined to areas controlled by ISIS, nor are they wholly new. Indeed, the recent rise of violent extremism has been driven in part by longer-term factors, such as official discrimination, legal impunity and even state-led persecution that are evident in many countries across the region. Religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities have frequently faced restrictions on their ability to worship, to engage freely in cultural practices or even speak their native tongue – all symptoms of a wider climate of intolerance that threatens the region’s rich diversity.