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Overlooked no more: A Victory for the Indigenous Batwa of the Democratic Republic of Congo

16 June 2020

By Eunice Nsikak Olembo, Africa Legal Officer at Minority Rights Group Africa

June 5th, 2020 marked a historic date for indigenous people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On that day, the country’s National Assembly voted almost unanimously to adopt a Bill that lays down fundamental principles relating to the recognition and safeguard of the rights of indigenous peoples.

This is part of an eight-year advocacy journey to recognize and protect the rights of a group of people who have been subjected for decades to diminished social standing. Through an initiative of one of the National Deputies, Ruben Rachidi Bukanga, the Bill was initiated and supported by civil society organisations back in 2014. Since then, these organizations have been fighting hard to safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples

A long process of social exclusion

Across the Great Lakes region, the indigenous Batwa, a forest hunter-gatherer group spread throughout Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC, have fought and continue to fight a battle for equality and recognition that has steadily ravaged their society over the years. Traditionally, the Batwa were deeply rooted in the forests of the Great Lakes region from where they derived their identity, cultural rites and traditions as well as their source of livelihood and medicines.

The nineteenth century saw not only a rise in deforestation, clearing of forests and logging with the incoming of agriculturalists and pastoralists but also the advent of colonialism characterized by large-scale logging, an increased interest in trophy game hunting and the creation of reserves on indigenous peoples’ lands. Further compounded by the establishment of new protected areas all over the country in the name of conservation, entire communities across the region were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes with no recourse whatsoever.

This marked the beginning of decades of ethnic discrimination, social exclusion, and human rights violations for indigenous peoples in DRC, historically known to be the first occupants of the land.

A continuing process

Although the National Assembly’s adoption of the Bill is an excellent first step, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The fight to ensure the safeguard of the rights of indigenous peoples is far from over. It needs to go beyond just the passing of legislation and actively towards actual implementation of the law, putting systems and structures in place for the effective enforcement of the law.

The next step is for the Bill to be presented to the Socio-Cultural Commission to be debated on and eventually voted on in a plenary session before being submitted for a Second Reading at the Senate level. Once the Bill has been voted on by the Senate’s National Deputies, it will be presented to the President of the Republic for promulgation into law.

If the process reaches that ultimate step and the Bill is assented into law, this will be the first piece of legislation that explicitly caters to a specific vulnerable group. It will set precedent and provide the much-needed legal backing to continue advocating for the rights of indigenous communities in the DRC. For example, the Institut Envrionnement, Ressources Naturelles et Développement (ERND), an organisation supporting the indigenous Batwa people in South Kivu, state the following:

The promulgation of this law will facilitate the task of defending the rights on the ground of the Batwa before judicial and administrative authorities, which has previously been an uphill task with duty bearers claiming vagueness around the rights of indigenous peoples. There is a case that has been pending at the Court of Cassation for more than two years, which to date is yet to be placed before a Judge. We hope that the promulgation of this law will contribute to the advancement of not only this case but similar cases. The admissibility of this Bill, therefore, gives ERND and other organizations agitating for the rights of indigenous Peoples hope for long-term successes in the protection of the rights of a community that has for so long been treated as second-class citizens.”[1]

An opportunity to reclaim dignity

While the admissibility and adoption of the Bill in itself is a significant step in addressing the plight of indigenous people, it is but a drop in the ocean.

The significance of the adoption of this Bill goes beyond just legislation: it speaks to opportunity. Opportunity to ensure that for the first time in decades, a community that has been so marginalized, that has been so far from the sights of power, not only has the chance to fully exercise their civil, political and socio-economic rights, but also has for the first time the opportunity to hold the Government and other duty-bearers accountable when they abrogate their responsibility.

This is something that was previously unheard of; an actual opportunity to reclaim the dignity that has for so long been stripped.

The indigenous Batwa can no longer be hidden, they can no longer be forgotten, nor can they be overlooked.

[1] The Institut Environnement, Ressources Naturelles et Développement (ERND) is an organisation that supports the indigenous Batwa people in South Kivu, and in particular the ‘Batwa’ expelled from Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Photo: Palais du Peuple, seat of the National Assembly of the DRC, by Radio Okapi.