The International Day of World's Indigenous Peoples is observed on 9th August of each year to protect the rights of indigenous people worldwide, as on 23rd December 1994, the UNGA has decided that this day should be observed on 9th August each year during the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples. The rights of indigenous people have assumed a significant place in the international human rights law. In recent years the issues concerning indigenous peoples have not only been received the national and global attention, but have attained the status of customary international law and thus legally binding upon all States.
Now the question is, “who are the indigenous peoples?” There exists an informal common accord among the States that indigenous peoples are the descendents of those who inhabited a geographic region, when people of different ethnic origins arrived. In Asian context, the term 'indigenous peoples' is commonly understood as different cultural groups, e.g., 'Adivasis', 'tribal peoples', 'hill tribes' or 'scheduled tribes'. In Bangladesh, they are treated as 'tribals' in official documents, though in the Act 12 of 1995 and Rules 6, 34, 45, 50 of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Regulation (1900), they are documented as 'indigenous peoples' or 'aboriginal' as per section 97 of the SAT Act (1950). In Bangladesh there are about 50 different indigenous communities living in the plain lands and hill areas. Though they claim that their population is over 3 million, according to the survey of 2011, the country's indigenous population is around 1,586,141, which signifies 1.8% of total population of the country.
The Constitution of Bangladesh ensures affirmative action for indigenous peoples and prohibits discrimination inter alia on grounds of race, religion or place of birth, Article 23A of which provides, “the State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities”. It also spells out in Article 28 (4), “nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from making special provision in favor of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens”.
Also the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act (1950) restricts the sale of lands of 'aboriginal castes and tribes' to anyone except aboriginal castes domiciled in Bangladesh. There are five major Acts that address the crucial aspects of rights of indigenous peoples in the CHT: (i) the CHT Regulation (1900); (ii) the CHT Development Board Ordinance (1976); (iii) the Hill District Council Acts (1989); (iv) the CHT Regional Council Act (1998); and (v) the CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act (2001). The Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum (BIPF) urged the government to enact the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (2015) which is being drafted by the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples and formulated by the NHRC aiming to ensure economic, social, and cultural rights of indigenous people.
At the universal level, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) is the latest human rights instrument addressing the basic rights of world indigenous people. Also the ILO has developed two global instruments regarding indigenous people: the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 (No. 107) to which Bangladesh is a Party from 1972, and the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169). These treaties signify that, self-identification as 'indigenous' shall be regarded as a basic criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of this Convention apply.
Though the indigenous people retain the economic, social, cultural and political characteristics that are different from those of the dominant societies in which they live, a major portion of them continues to be deprived of the basic socio-economic rights. Despite Bangladesh has acceded to a number of global human rights treaties, effective implementation of those treaties through taking effective legislative, administrative and judicial measures is far from good.
The writer is a Lecturer of Law, Southeast University.