Jun 29, 2011

Chittagong Hill Tracts: Civic Groups in Bangladesh Demand Constitutional Recognition of Fundamental Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Protecting the rights of indigenous peoples must be a cornerstone of reconciliation.  Government is further criticized for referring to indigenous communities in the constitutional as ‘tribal’, which is seen as derogatory.   

Below is an article published by Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources:

Civic groups demanded specific provisions in the Constitution of Bangladesh enshrining civil, political, cultural and land rights of all indigenous peoples of the country. ‘It’s necessary for building peace,’ they said.

Speakers of the event said they were surprised to learn that Special Committee on constitution amendment has recommended indigenous peoples be dubbed as “tribals, national minorities, small ethnic groups and communities” whereas a law enacted last year had replaced “tribal” with their preferred description as “indigenous” population.

They were speaking at the launching of a book containing national and international laws on indigenous peoples hosted by Kapaeeng Foundation and Oxfam-GB at the National Planning Academy on 27 June 2011.

Chakma circle chief Devashish Roy, assistant attorney general Pratikar Chakma and lawyer Shirin Lira, jointly edited the book, ‘Compendium on National and International Laws and Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh.’

As chief guest of the launching programme, former chief justice and caretaker government chief adviser M Habibur Rahman said it would be good for all, not to create new conflicts. He said that reconciliation alone could provide a solution. Justice Rahman called for ensuring the community based right to land and the customary rights of the indigenous peoples.

Justice S K Sinha of the Appellate Division expressed the hope that following amendment specific provisions would be incorporated in the Constitution enshrining the rights of the country’s population groups having their own culture and customs that make them distinct from the country’s mainstream population. “Actually it is not a book of laws but history. It recognises the fact that under circumstances, traditional norms have also been recognised as laws,” said Justice S K Sinha.

Raja Devashish Roy, a lawyer of Supreme Court and traditional chief of Chakma circle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, said that Constitutional recognition of ethnic peoples, particularly their customary laws and contracts like CHT Accord 1997, was a must for upholding rule of law and justice.

He said that for the implementation of the CHT Accord it was essential for it to have constitutional recognition. Otherwise, he said, the constitutionality of implementation of the CHT Accord and the legality of the CHT Regional Council formed in according with the Accord could be questioned as it happened recently. He recalled a recent HC decision which struck down the CHT Regional Council as unconstitutional. He said it was, therefore, essential for the CHT Accord to have constitutional recognition. He said that the HC questioned the legality of the Accord as it lacked the recognition.

Raja Devashish said, ‘Recognition in the constitution is a must to ensure our rights.’ He said that the word ‘tribal’ and its bangla version ‘Upajati’ is derogatory and unacceptable. He added that it would be totally unacceptable to use the term ‘tribal’ in the amended Constitution to describe the ethnic minorities.

He said, “We expect the government to identify indigenous people by a term, at least accepted by the people themselves.” He also criticized the Special Parliamentary Committee on constitution amendments for not inviting any indigenous representatives to discussions.

Oxfam-GB programme manager M B Akhter and programme officer Saikat Biswas, Kapaeeng Foundation chairperson Rabindranath Soren, Human rights and legal education committee chairman Z I Khan Panna spoke, among others.