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Congo’s Indigenous Rights Bill Stalls

Law Aimed to End Discrimination, Enforce Rights, Awaits President’s Signature

An Indigenous woman and her children walk to a market to sell pottery on Idjwi island, eastern Congo, January 2017.  © 2017 Therese Di Campo/Reuters

Update: On November 16, 2022, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi signed the new law on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Indigenous Pygmy Peoples.

Four months ago, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s parliament sent a bill to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples to President Félix Tshisekedi for his signature. But he has yet to sign the bill into law. The delay is prompting Indigenous communities and activists to wonder what is holding Tshisekedi back.

Congo has between 700,000 and 2 million Indigenous people, according to government figures and civil society groups. Their lives are based on a deep connection to the Congo Basin’s forests, and their livelihood and culture are closely linked to its resources.

Congo’s Indigenous peoples have long suffered from stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. They have faced social exclusion, segregation, disenfranchisement, and human rights violations. They often lack access to justice, health services, and education.

Many Indigenous communities have been forcibly evicted from forests without compensation, their lands seized for conservation and logging. This has disrupted their livelihoods and violated their rights to land, culture, and self-determination as set out under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international and regional standards.

Human Rights Watch documented the 2021 massacre of 66 Indigenous Iyeke people, including at least 40 children, in the western Tshuapa province. The lack of accountability for these horrific killings highlighted the discrimination against Indigenous people. Deadly attacks targeting Indigenous groups continue to occur throughout the country.

The Tshisekedi administration, expressing commitment to advancing the rights of Indigenous peoples, drew up the Bill on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Indigenous Pygmy Peoples. The bill acknowledges the discrimination and other abuse that have led to the political, administrative, economic, social, and cultural marginalization of Indigenous peoples. It recognizes their “traditions, customs and legal pharmacopoeia,” and guarantees them “easier access to justice and basic social services” as well as “the right to lands and natural resources they own, occupy or use, in accordance with the law in force.”

At COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last November, Tshisekedi said that “protecting the rights of local communities and Indigenous peoples is crucial.” But the president’s signature remains necessary to put the law into effect.

“[W]e’re still waiting,” said Patrick Saidi, coordinator of the Dynamic of Indigenous Peoples’ Groups in Congo. “And many wonder if we have not been used so the government could secure financial support from international donors.”

For the sake of the rights of Congo’s Indigenous peoples, why not sign?

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