THE LOT OF THE LUMADS: Human Rights Challenges of the Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao

(Mr. Ola Almgren, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator delivered this speech as reactor of the Pipelines Session on The Lot of the Lumads” organized by the Office of the Political Advisor in the Office of the President on 8 December 2015 at Kalayaan Hall in Malacanang)

Honorable Members of Government, Excellencies, Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen, magandang hapon po sa inyong lahat (Good afternoon to all of you!)

The Charter of the United Nations, signed in June 1945 with the Philippines as one of its signatories, states that we the peoples of the United Nations, (are) determined “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

Three years later, on 10 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that, for the first time in history, set out a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations articulating fundamental human rights to be universally protected.  Again, the Philippines, together with 47 other Member States, were the founding signatories to the Declaration and in so being, combined with the UN charter, made sure that Human Rights became part of the genetic code of the United Nations, part of our DNA.

Over the years of experiences, some of them unfortunately devastating in terms of human rights, our Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2013 launched an internal initiative – Human Rights up Front – which re-affirms the centrality of human rights in the work of the UN system and seeks to ensure that the UN consistently takes early and effective action to prevent or respond to large-scale human rights or humanitarian law violations and to ensure that human rights and the protection of civilians are understood as a UN system-wide core responsibility.

So, as you can imagine, it is truly a great pleasure and an absolute privilege for me, as a representative of the United Nations, to have been invited as a reactor to this session of Pipelines on the very topical issue; “The Lot of the Lumads.” I wish to congratulate and commend the Office of the President for holding this session.  In addition to the timeliness and great importance of the subject, I also note that the session is held only two day away from International Human Rights Day on 10 December. What better way to put the spotlight on a very real human rights challenge right here in the Philippines!

The 1987 Philippines Constitution enshrines the principles on the promotion and protection of human rights.  The same is true of other important national legislation.

With regard to the recognition of indigenous peoples, the Philippines is at the forefront globally in terms of its legal frameworks. IP rights are included in numerous articles of the Constitution and, most importantly, in the 1997 Indigenous Peoples Rights Act.  A landmark and far-reaching piece of legislation in which the individual and collective basic rights of IPs are enshrined.

In 2007, the Philippines was one of 144 Member States to vote in favor of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).  This declaration is a historic achievement following a generation of work and which, for the first time internationally, lays out critical human rights standards for the world’s 370 million indigenous people.

With a strong normative framework securely in place, the Government can focus its efforts on ensuring a meaningful and comprehensive implementation of the existing laws that uphold and protect the rights of IPs.  I believe this is one of the key areas where the partnership with the UN can be of value.  As you know, the UN works in support of the government, national and local actors in three overarching areas which make up the three pillars of the UN – peace and security, social and economic development and human rights.  All of that work is done with a particular focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.

With regard to IPs, the first United Nations publication on the State of the World’s IPs released in January 2010 revealed alarming statistics on poverty, health, education, employment, human rights, environment and more.  A 2012 report by the World Bank noted that while IPs make up only 5% of the world’s population, they constitute 15% of the world’s most poor, and suffer systemic exclusion from political and economic power.

The IPs in the Philippines also face many challenges in the context of development, peace and security and human rights, most notably in Mindanao which is home to the largest population of IPs, where the overall socio-economic indicators are some of the lowest in the country and where there has been long-standing armed conflict.

The UN appreciates and shares the grave concerns expressed over the past months by the Department of Justice, the Commission on Human Rights and the National Commission on IPs, the UN Special Rapporteur on IPs, Ms. Victoria Tauli Corpus (a Filipina), by Cardinal Tagle and others as well as the Lumads themselves on the reports of human rights violations this year, including killings, recruitments into various armed groups, harassment and threats, displacement, disruption to schools and livelihoods and the continued threat to the security and integrity of their ancestral domain.

In the context of peace and security, the UN welcomes the September statement by the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the violence.  We look forward to a swift and transparent process with findings that will be made public.  The Lumads have for decades been disproportionately affected by the conflict and, as stated by the CHR, have long been exploited for political use by all parties to the conflict.  This must stop.  The UN agrees with the many calls for local armed groups, including IP armed groups, to urgently and systematically be disarmed and disbanded and stopped from engaging in violence and criminal activities.  The State must ensure that law and order is consistently maintained in all communities.

The UN supports the premise made by the Department of Justice that under International Humanitarian Law, the protection of non-combatants ‘must never be compromised and violators must be held to account’.  Non-combatants must be fully protected by the State and never be subjected to persecution, targeting, harassment or violence due to their political beliefs.  We must remember that the targeting or occupation of schools as well as the harassment or attacks on teachers and students are considered grave violations under the UN Resolution 1612 which covers children in armed conflict and for which there is a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) established in the Philippines.

Activities undertaken by security forces as well as armed groups within and around IP communities in Mindanao have resulted in legitimate expressions of fear and insecurity, in displacement, and is endangering the security and safety of non-combatants, including women, children and older persons.  As Cardinal Tagle called for in his November statement, IP communities should be preserved as zones of peace.  A meaningful and comprehensive resumption of the peace process between the Government and the CPP-NPA-NDF is essential to ensuring lasting peace for the Philippines.

The UN shares the concerns raised by the CHR on the use or exploitation of natural resources as another key element of the root causes of human rights violations faced by the Lumads.  As the ancestral domain of IPs is home to the last remaining areas in the Philippines of virgin forestland as well as highly-valued mineral deposits, pressures from both legal and illegal logging and mining have put the sustainability of the IPs’ culture, livelihood and ultimately their unique way of life at risk given the inextricable ties between their life and their land.  Many who resist these advances have been subject to serious human rights violations, including threats, displacement and loss of life.

In the UN’s work with local government, we often hear that the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) is not being upheld at the ground level.  We are told that the processes for land certification and IP representation at the Local Government level are fraught with a lack of adequate and timely information, transparency and, at times, the IPs are subject to outright coercion by various actors.  We also hear from IPs that they often no longer have faith in the very system designed to preserve and protect their land through the certification process.   We have also been informed that once the land is titled, there can be tremendous challenges to physically taking over their land due to previous agreements that have not been terminated or the termination is not respected, as is required under IPRA.  This goes against the very spirit and objective of this excellent legislation.

IPs must be able to remain on their land and sustain their livelihoods with continuity and in safety and security and, if their rights are violated, they must be able to avail of credible and transparent redress mechanisms that will support the protection of their rights.  All bodies mandated to uphold and implement the many elements of IPRA should be fully empowered to carry out their responsibilities and, at all levels, should be held to account should they fail to do so.  There is clearly considerable good will but many serious obstacles at the level of implementation.  The concerns, grievances, lessons learned and proposed solutions of the IPs must be heard and documented through genuine and widespread consultation and dialogue, and must be at the very center of how we effectively resolve these challenges.

Finally, I would like to raise the issue of the enjoyment of the economic and social rights of the IPs.  The UN has been working closely with local government in Mindanao to support those who have been displaced as a result of violence as well as to significantly strengthen and improve the provision of and access to adequate levels of basic social services, including health, education, housing and water and sanitation which remain seriously limited.  The delivery of these services should be done through civilian line agencies and the standards and quality need to be on par with those offered in other parts of the Philippines.

The planning and implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals provides an important new framework and opportunity for all of us to redouble our efforts to prioritize the most marginalized and vulnerable groups across the Philippines, of which the IPs must be a significant focus.

In summary, the UN would like to support a number of the key actions put forward by the DoJ, CHR and others that are both short term and longer term in nature.

The short term actions would be:

o   To disarm and disband all armed groups and arrest and prosecute those responsible for violence and/or criminal activities;

o   To provide full protection to civilians in accordance with IHL and ensure that non-combatants are not subject to persecution, harassment or violence, including as a result of their political beliefs;

o   To ensure that law and order is consistently and effectively maintained throughout Mindanao.

And the longer term actions would be:

o   To significantly strengthen access to and delivery of quality essential social services to IP communities through civilian line government agencies;

o   To fully and comprehensively implement the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) and address the challenges that currently impede its proper functioning;

o   To pursue a full and meaningful resumption of the peace process between the GoP and the CPP-NPA-NDF.

The UN looks forward to a strong continued partnership with government, national institutions, civil society and IPs.  The obstacles are not insurmountable but they require continued dialogue, sincere reflection, creative approaches and accountability from all actors.

Let us work collectively and collaboratively to address and resolve these challenges so that the Lumads, and all IPs, can live in safety and security, enjoy a high standard of living through the enjoyment of traditional or non-traditional livelihoods, have provision of social services that are on par with other parts of the country, and be supported in the preservation of their culture and the natural resources that make up the tremendous wealth and diversity of the Philippines.

Again, my congratulations to the organizers of Pipelines.  I am most grateful to have this opportunity to share my views in my capacity as United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator with you today and to be part of this very important dialogue.

Maraming salamat po! (Thank you very much!)

(Mr. Ola Almgren, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator delivered this speech as reactor of the Pipelines Session on The Lot of the Lumads” organized by the Office of the Political Advisor in the Office of the President on 8 December 2015 at Kalayaan Hall in Malacanang. This piece is available online at