Oct 26, 2020

Unrepresented & Alone - A UNPO Perspective on Coronavirus

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization has published a policy paper with key recommendations to the international community and to national governments on the impact of COVID-19 on unrepresented nations and peoples. The paper highlights that the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on minorities, indigenous communities and other unrepresented peoples is largely caused by the marginalization and denial of their right to self-determination. Beyond a mere political question, it is an amplification of public health and other rights-based disparities faced by these communities. 

In March 2020, the UNPO launched the campaign Coronavirus: Unrepresented & Alone, aiming to document how unrepresented nations and peoples have been treated both internationally and nationally, in order to understand and inform policy-makers how to better protect them. Over the course of eight months we offered an online digest and repository of our monitoring work during the crisis, highlighting some of the most noteworthy cases. Attracting the attention of the media, academics and other organisations, the campaign quickly became a reliable platform for those interested in the cause of unrepresented peoples. 

Following five months of monitoring, the preliminary findings were shared as a consultation paper during the opening plenary of the XV General Assembly of the UNPO, in July 2020. Bringing together a panel of experts for an online discussion on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on unrepresented peoples around the world, the debate heard speeches from Mrs Edna Adan Ismail (pioneer in the struggle for the abolition of FGM and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Somaliland); Professor Fernand de Varennes (UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues); Dr Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj (Journalist, Social Anthropologist and international spokeswoman for indigenous rights); Professor Fiona McConnel (Professor of Geography from the University of Oxford); and Dr Jehan El-Bayoumi (Physician, Professor of Medicine at George Washington University and Founding Director of the Rodham Institute).

The UNPO Expert Panel

UNPO Member Responses

Report Findings

The UNPO's report consolidates the findings from its monitoring of the situation and discussions with experts and unrepresented nations and peoples. It finds that, under an increasingly fragmented and demoralized multilateral system, unrepresented peoples are left once again at their own luck and resources to resolve domestic issues. In this context, the vacuum left by the international community has encouraged certain states to step up aggressive national policies against their own minorities and indigenous peoples without fearing being held accountable for their actions.  Growing violence, persecution and militarization, often sponsored by the governments charged with their protection, while increasing hate crimes and scapegoating committed against them has led to further exclusion and denial of access to funding and supplies to deal with the pandemic. Overall, deep rooted societal and economic problems have been severely exacerbated by the pandemic, such as decades of severe neglect and underinvestment, leaving many unrepresented peoples extremely ill-prepared to deal with the crisis.

While the extension of government power has been common to most countries during the pandemic, repressive states are more likely to bypass established legal channels and enforce their will more directly. For national minorities in repressive states, this trend is an extremely worrying development, such as in the case of West Papua in Indonesia and Sindh and Balochistan provinces in Pakistan.  When it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples in Latin America, the lack of medical facilities have left entire communities on their own. Already at great risk of displacement due to unrelenting mining operations on indigenous territories, indigenous peoples are suffering more than before. For UNPO members in Africa and South Asia, severe underdevelopment and lack of health facilities have put their survival to a test. Moreover, the loss of employment has been a hardship most severe in poorer areas, such as with the Jumma people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.

Even in more developed, democratic countries we have seen governments denying their minorities effective means to combat the virus themselves. In Washington, D.C., for example, the federal government gave far fewer funds to the territory proportionally than it gave to US states, even though Capitol was worse affected than most other parts of the country.  On the other hand, the Spanish government sought to combat the virus by revoking powers given to the devolved to Catolonia, much to the anger of the Catalonian government, who believed they were much better equipped to deal with the crisis locally.

In order to fill the gap that governments are failing to provide, new mutual aid initiatives have been created by civil society actors. In a number of places, civic actors are collaborating closely with local businesses that are donating medical equipment and food and contributing to relief efforts in other ways”. However, despite the important work these actors are undertaking during this time of crisis, in many places their work is being undermined by repressive regimes that have used the pandemic to bolster their powers and ramp up their efforts to harm or silence opposition voices within their societies.

In a statement by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner on  COVID-19 and minority rights published in June 2020, the UN acknowledged that the pandemic has had a broad range of disproportionate and adverse impacts upon national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minority communities. The lack of representation, however, is an issue that has yet to be mainstreamed in the UN language and policies. In light of problems of global reach, being unrepresented in the 21st Century means being more exposed to life-threatening issues. In this context, it is imperative to understand that the full realization of the right to self-determination for all peoples is not a threat, but an instrument that can save lives, communities and cultures.  

UNPO Resolution on COVID-19

In light of the severe impact of the pandemic on unrepresented nations and peoples, the coronavirus was the central issue discussed at the last XV General Assembly, held in July 2020. At the occasion, the UNPO General Assembly adopted by unanimity a resolution calling upon the international community to allow states with limited recognition to have full access to coordination mechanisms such as the World Health Organization and access to external international aid and funding, as well as for the United Nations to launch an international fund specifically aimed at strengthening resilience of minority and indigenous communities worldwide, so as to allow them to recover from the harsh impact of the pandemic.

Having adopted this resolution, UNPO members aim at reminding the international community that the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on minorities, indigenous communities and other unrepresented peoples is largely caused by the marginalization and denial of their right to self-determination. Beyond a mere political question, it is an amplification of public health and other rights-based disparities faced by these communities.

Photo: PAHO/Karen González Abril