May 28, 2024

This story is published as part of the Global Indigenous Affairs DeskA Native-led collaboration between Grist, High Country News, ICT, Mongabay, Native News Online and APTN.

Last September, Nicaraguan state security forces arrived at the home of indigenous Miskitu leader Brooklyn Rivera in Bilwi, on the northern Caribbean coast. Officers posed as health workers and allegedly handcuffed Rivera and beat him with batons before putting him in the back of an ambulance and driving away. More than six months later, Rivera’s family still does not know where he is, or if he is alive.

Although Rivera has fought for Miskitu autonomy and land rights for decades, Carlos Hendy Thomas, another Miskitu leader, said the recent targeting begins with Rivera’s April 2023 trip to New York for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Affairs, or UNPFII, the world’s largest gathering of indigenous leaders and activists, and a place for indigenous peoples to address issues facing their communities. Hendy Thomas said that before Rivera left for New York, government officials warned him not to speak out against the government. He did anyway, and when Rivera tried to board a plane to return home, he was told that the Nicaraguan authorities had not approved his re-entry. Instead, Rivera flew to Honduras and crossed the border back into Nicaragua to return to Bilwi.

A few days before his arrest, Hendy Thomas told Rivera he had to leave the country for his own safety, but Rivera insisted his people needed him. That was the last time the two spoke. This year, Hendy Thomas came to the Permanent Forum to ask the United Nations to press Nicaragua for information. “We hope that by coming here, it will at least come to light, and the UN will intervene to get him out of prison, if he is still in prison, or if he is even alive,” Hendy Thomas said.

Rivera’s situation is reflected in a growing trend of indigenous leaders facing reprisals for speaking out at UNPFII and other international spaces. With few options for indigenous peoples to advocate in their own countries, especially where regimes refuse to even recognize their existence, many leaders are turning to the international community for help. But even that option is becoming less feasible for many indigenous peoples.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the number and severity of reprisals against people for participating in the United Nations system has increased. In the past two years alone, indigenous leaders attending UN meetings have faced attempted kidnapping, harassment, arrest, intimidation, online censorship, travel bans, smears and other forms of reprisal.

Hernan Vales, the head of the indigenous peoples and minorities division at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said his office had seen an increase in reported cases of reprisals, but declined to give specific numbers . Vales and other UN experts also believe that there may be many more cases that go unreported. A 2023 UN Report on the issue also says that more people are simply choosing not to get involved in the UN because they fear repercussions. For example, according to the report, 38 indigenous Yukpa people decided not to meet with UN officials in Venezuela after they were stopped by military forces on their way to the meeting.

“We cannot tolerate the silencing of those who bring critical perspective to the United Nations,” Vales said in a statement. “We need to do more.”

But even with the increased attention and resources available, UNPFII forum members, UN experts and indigenous leaders say the problem continues to worsen. Roberto Borrero, who is president of the United Confederation of Taíno Peopleshas attended every session of the Permanent Forum since it began in 2002 and said the frequency and severity of reprisals had increased, and that the UN needed to do more.

“It really speaks to the credibility of the UN to highlight and follow up on this issue,” he said. “If they don’t, the UN will be seen as even more ineffective.”

a black and white image of a man posing with his fist on his chin
Brooklyn Rivera poses for a photo in 1988.
The Denver Post via Getty Images

Last year, Edward Porokwa, an indigenous Maasai leader from Tanzania, Attended UNPFII to draw attention to human rights violations carried out against Maasai communities, including forced evictions, land grabbing, and resource deprivation. At the forum, Porokwa said, Tanzanian officials followed him, took videos and photos without his permission and said he was not a legal representative. Porokwa said he also received anonymous phone calls throughout the forum saying that what he was doing was not right and the government was watching him.

In Tanzania, Maasai activists face arrest and prosecution, and Porokwa, frightened by the warnings, decided not to return home for almost six months. “It was very terrible,” he said. “I couldn’t meet my family. I couldn’t communicate with everyone because they really made me feel like my life was in danger.” Despite the incident, Porokwa returned to UNPFII this year with an even larger delegation of Masai leaders.

Indigenous leaders believe that governments target their UN participation because it embarrasses them on the world stage. Exposing human rights violations to the international community can also have a financial impact. just this week the World Bank announced it was suspending $50 million in funding a tourism project in Tanzania that has been plagued by allegations of murder, forced evictions and rape.

In a statement delivered at UNPFII, Hamisi Malebo, the executive secretary of the United Republic of Tanzania’s National Commission for UNESCO, denied what he called the “baseless and factually inaccurate” allegations made by Masai leaders. “Tanzania is guided by the rule of law and respect for human rights,” said Malebo. “The government does not condone acts of threat, intimidation and harassment of its citizens, human rights defenders and other non-state actors pursuing this common goal.”

Brian Keane, director of Land Is Life, a nonprofit that advocates for indigenous rights, says that while threats at the UN tend to be less overt than cases like Rivera’s, intimidation and harassment should be taken just as seriously, especially knowing that it could lead to more serious repercussions at home. “It’s a big issue,” he said. “There’s this kind of constant bullying that keeps trying to silence people who are here to speak up for their rights,” he said.

On the second day of the two-week UNPFII session, Hindu Oumarou Ibrahim, native Mbororo of Chad and the chairman of the forum, delivered a statement condemning any retaliation.

A woman wears a matching floral shirt and sheet headdress and sits at a desk with a label that says Chair PFII
Hindu Oumarou Ibrahim speaks at the 2024 UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Affairs. Ines Belchior / Ronja Porho / UN DESA DISD

Last year, a young indigenous woman from Asia, whose name Grist is withholding to protect her identity, was on her way to her local airport to attend UNPFII, when her car was surrounded by a convoy of government vehicles. Officers tried to drag her from her car, and it was only after bystanders rushed to her defense that she was finally allowed to leave. She said she is more careful now. But even after the experience, she returned to UNPFII this year. “I have to get on with my work,” she said. “That’s how I see my meaning in life.”

In July 2022, Yana Tannagasheva, a native Shor activist from Kemerovo Oblast, Russia, attended a UN meeting in Geneva to speak about the harms of coal mining in her community. After she spoke, Tannagasheva and other witnesses say A Russian representative approached her aggressively and demanded to know her name and personal contact information. Tannagasheva, who has lived in exile in Sweden for six years, says the experience shattered her sense of security. “It was so horrible. I wanted to cry,” she said. “I was surprised that this could happen during a UN session.”

Representatives of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the Republic of Nicaragua, the Russian Federation and the United Republic of Tanzania did not respond to requests for comment.

Binota Moy Dhamai, Tripura of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh and the chairman of the Expert mechanism on the rights of indigenous peoples, said that retaliation threatens the entire international system and its goals. “Then if it continues like this, what is the meaning of talking about the sustainable development goals? What is the meaning of talking about peace building?” he said.

Despite the risks, Carlos Hendy Thomas, of Nicaragua, has no plans to give up his fight. In 2020, Hendy Thomas’ son, who would have inherited his title of hereditary chief, was murdered. The murder, which Hendy Thomas believes was orchestrated by the state because of his son’s defense of Miskitu land rights, was never investigated. Hendy Thomas, who lives in the United States, says he is not that worried about his own safety, even though he is worried about his family at home.

“I don’t really care about me,” he said. “They have already killed my son. I’m scared, but I’m talking. If I don’t, who will?”

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