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Invisible Lives: Undercounted, Underrepresented and Underneath: The Socio-economic Plight of Indigenous Peoples in the Commonwealth
Richard BourneLondon Commonwealth Policy Studies Institute2003ISBN: 0-9543777-2-9£20
Invisible Lives provides a very valuable and constructive survey of the condition of indigenous peoples across the Commonwealth. It covers, necessarily, a wide range of circumstances, from the Aboriginal communities of the “white” commonwealth, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and the indigenous populations of “black” nations such as Guyana (Amerindians) and Botswana (“Bushmen”). Much discussion of north-south issues is still couched in terms of “development” and “underdevelopment”. This document reminds us that such assumptions are simplistic, because it shows that in both “worlds” ancient native populations face remarkably similar problems: political and cultural alienation; economic marginality; institutionalised discrimination and, in many cases, violence; the seizure of land and resources and the disruption of traditional, tried and tested patterns of living, in the name of progress and profit.
Much of Invisible Lives, inevitably, makes for depressing reading. Yet it also shows a patchwork of losses and gains, which do not necessarily correspond to the levels of development of the country in question. In “developed” Australia, for example, the position of the Aboriginal population has in many respects worsened in recent years. This arises largely from a shift of economic priorities and a less than sympathetic federal government. In New Zealand and Canada, economic and cultural gains are balanced by continuing relative economic deprivation and educational disadvantage. In “underdeveloped” India and Bangladesh, the positions of the Adivasis and Chakmas have improved, indeed in the latter case made great strides forward, although that does not in any sense mean that their problems are over, or that their situation is even tolerable.
In the First World, indigenous populations are more affected than their Third World counterparts by family breakdown, drug and solvent abuse, domestic violence and the general fragmentation of communities. Their situation in this sense mirrors that of the larger Western society. In the Third World, the key considerations are hunger, access to medicine, freedom from war (and, for young men especially, conscription), basic education for children of both sexes, land rights and basic cultural or religious freedoms. The main achievement of the past 30 years, and the past decade in particular, is that indigenous peoples’ rights have moved from the margins to the centre of policy making. This is especially true of international organisations such as the UN and the Commonwealth, which give indigenous (and other) minorities a voice and enable them to exchange experiences and work together, across geographical and political lines.
This survey grapples courageously with such thorny questions as the definition of an “indigenous people”, of individual rights versus “group rights”, and what to do when conflicts arise between cultural rights for communities and universally acknowledged standards of human rights, such as equality between men and women, and the rights of children:
Is it possible to define “indigenous” tightly enough, where labelling may turn on self-definition and the term may be used ahistorically? Would a recognition of collective indigenous rights jeopardise other rights which the UK values highly … In particular, would indigenous rights diminish the individual rights of persons who belong to indigenous groups? How would indigenous rights actually enhance the rights of the persons concerned, and would they then be superior to the rights of others living in the same country? Finally, is there any guarantee that a recognition of indigenous rights would not lead to secession from existing states?
Such questions are very pertinent to the wider debate over rights-based politics and the development of democratic institutions. Invisible Lives provides no easy answers to these questions, because there are none. It challenges policy makers to think carefully, and listen, rather than charge ahead, however benevolent or enlightened their intentions. The survey’s author, Richard Bourne, is exceptionally well qualified to address this issue, which has interested him for many years. As well as being Head of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, he is the former Chair of Survival International, which campaigns for threatened peoples across the globe. Invisible Lives is an essential research tool for anyone interested in human rights and issues affecting indigenous minority populations. It also reminds us of the unique and valuable role that the Commonwealth at its best can play.
Invisible Lives is available from the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, 28 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DS, UK. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site: www.cpsu.org.uk