How much would you pay for your human rights? The perilous fate of indigenous human rights defenders in Africa

Today, as we commemorate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders call on states and relevant actors to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples, and human rights defenders (HRDs) working to protect them, as set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

The label ‘indigenous’ is extremely multifaceted. Africa is home to hundreds of indigenous ethnic groups which possess unique cultures, languages, and social structures that often differ considerably from the dominant society, and from each other. Over the past decade indiginous people have made significant strides towards the implementation and protection of their rights to land and services, working alongside initiatives that have been developed to protect their rights at national, regional, and international level.

“These people need to be protected or they will be extinguished from history. They have no access to education, health facilities, water, nothing. No access to legal support. They have their own way of life, but the government has increasingly interfered with their life.” – Tanzanian human rights defender

However, the label ‘indigenous’ is also the source of severe marginalisation. When governments opt that certain lands – inhabited by indigenous groups for centuries – should rather be gazetted as  a national park or a wildlife reserve, or identify it as a good spot to exploit natural resources or accommodate tourism companies, indigenous peoples pay the price and are forcibly evicted from their land. As a result,their way of life becomes the root of threats, harassment, attacks, and even murder – frustrations shared by many people defending indigenous rights.

According to Front Line Defenders’ Global Analysis 2018, 77 per cent of the activists killed for their human rights work in 2018 were defending land rights, environmental rights, or indigenous rights – often in the context of extractive industries and state-aligned mega-projects. However, the number of killings of defenders of land, indigenous rights, and environmental rights in Africa are seriously under-documented or reported, signifying that the number of killings could be higher.

“The moment you start defending people, you are a political opponent.” – Ugandan human rights defender

Joseph Parsambei’s experiences as a Tanzanian human rights lawyer defending indigenous rights illustrates the dangerous fate of an indigenous activist in the sub-region. “They [unknown people] didn’t even want to arrest me – they just wanted to shoot me. This was because of my clear, frontline defence of my community. I do it to defend community and my own livelihood. I am a lawyer, I don’t run from the law.”

Despite the development of several regional and international legal instruments, including the recent UN resolution on environmental HRDs, initiatives have yet to trickle down to the local level, as indigenous people are still facing severe risks. This trend demands our immediate attention and action. DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders will continue to call for the protection of indigenous peoples, and indigenous HRDs. To speak about your rights should not cost you your life.

*The quotes are taken from our report about indigenous HRDs; “To Them, We’re Not Even Human”: Marginalised Human Rights Defenders in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania (2018).




Recommendations from DefendDefenders’ report “To Them, We’re Not Even Human”: Marginalised Human Rights Defenders in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania (2018).


To state authorities:

  • Respect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and international legal instruments to which they are Parties, including the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR), as well as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • Ratify and promote the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989);
  • Implement relevant decisions and recommendations of UN human rights bodies and mechanisms, including the special procedures set up by the Human Rights Council and UN treaty monitoring bodies;
  • Extend a standing invitation to all UN special procedures and regional mechanisms to visit their country;
  • Allow, by making the necessary declarations under the relevant legal instruments, international and regional treaty monitoring bodies to receive complaints to allow members of indigenous communities and indigenous rights defenders to seize these bodies, in particular the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (OP1-ICCPR) and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (OP-ICESCR);
  • Afford indigenous peoples genuine participation and access to information in a language they understand, to ensure free, prior, and informed consent;
  • Ensure prompt and effective procedures to adjudicate land titles, review laws on expropriation, and provide for adequate grievance mechanisms to resolve land disputes and guarantee land tenure security in the form of either ownership, possession, or usage;
  • Ensure the sharing of benefits accrued from the use of resources in areas occupied by indigenous peoples, and provide reparations, including through restitution, and/or apologies and guarantees of non-recurrence, or adequate compensation for lands that were alienated without prior consultation or consent;
  • Amend existing legislation to facilitate the official registration of community and customary land tenure;
  • Translate existing legislation into indigenous minority languages, especially laws that pertain to land, or economic, social, and cultural rights;
  • Combat impunity for attacks against indigenous rights defenders or members of indigenous communities, and ensure that they can carry out their activities free from intimidation, threats, and reprisals; and
  • Ensure legislation imposes due diligence obligations for companies where there is a risk of human rights abuses against indigenous peoples.

To National Human Rights Institutions:

  • Closely monitor complaints related to development projects in areas occupied by indigenous peoples and provide appropriate and timely recommendations to states to address these concerns.

To private businesses and companies:

  • Fully integrate a human rights-based approach in all business operations that affect or are likely to affect indigenous peoples and their rights, including their right to an adequate standard of living;
  • Conduct comprehensive human rights impact assessments with the meaningful participation of the affected populations and communities, including indigenous rights defenders, prior to large-scale projects, ensuring that proper safeguards mechanisms, including grievance mechanisms, are put in place to mitigate and/or remedy any adverse human rights impact;
  • Ensure due diligence in line with corporate social responsibility obligations, as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, in all activities carried out in areas occupied by indigenous peoples, especially ensuring that the latter have access to all relevant information and are able to exercise free, prior, and informed consent as well as to receive adequate compensation in case they are adversely affected by business operations;
  • Abide by relevant provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, in particular the corporate responsibility to respect human rights as set out in the second pillar; and
  • Engage with indigenous peoples organisations, and human rights organisations working on the rights of indigenous people.

To indigenous communities and human rights defenders:

  • Appoint or elect community councils, and where possible, duly register these as community organisations so as to better facilitate advocacy and legal strategies. Ideally, these councils would include adequate representation from women and other marginalised groups within the community.

To national human rights defenders coalitions:

  • Establish a desk or focal point specifically appointed to monitor and document human rights abuses committed against indigenous minority human rights defenders; and
  • Better incorporate indigenous monitors into existing structures, taking into account a lack of communication and organisational capacity.

To civil society organisations:

  • Provide support and legal advice, facilitate sharing of experiences in relation to protection of indigenous peoples; and
  • Facilitate human rights trainings for indigenous peoples including available protection mechanisms. Prioritise training of grassroots HRDs as lawyers and paralegals.

To UN human rights bodies and mechanisms:

  • Building on existing instruments, initiatives, and mechanisms such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the work of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), the UN Human Rights Council should mainstream the protection of indigenous peoples and indigenous rights defenders into its work;
  • The UN Human Rights Council should recognise the need for enhanced protection of indigenous rights defenders by adopting a specific resolution on their protection; and

UN human rights bodies and mechanisms should remind states of their obligations to cooperate fully with them, including special procedures and treaty bodies, including by implementing relevant decisions, concluding observations, and recommendations.