Nepal and ILO 169

Ever since Nepal became a member of the United Nations, it has been signatory to several of its covenants and conventions and those of its specialised agencies, such as Unesco and the International Labour Organization (ILO). These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic and Cultural Rights, International Convention on Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination and Convention on Rights of the Child. There is also the ILO 169 convention, which has been quoted by ethnic activists in Nepal while asserting their rights. According to the Treaty Act of Nepal 1990, all treaties and conventions signed by Nepal have precedence over national laws if there’s a conflict between the two.

The ILO 169 is a convention concerning the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 1989 and it entered into force in September 1991. The preamble to the convention recognises that one of its objectives is to prevent discrimination and “adopt new international standards on the subject with a view to removing the assimilationistic orientation of the earlier standards” and to “recognize the aspiration of these peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and economic development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions, within the framework of the States in which they live”.

It is surprising that only 22 countries had ratified the treaty as of 2010. It is also interesting to note that more than half—or 13 out of the 22 signatories—are from Latin America, which had a native population before being colonised mainly by Spain and Portugal. Large scale migration took place from these countries to the colonies. Some of these coutries, such as Bolivia, have a population which is more than 80 percent indigenous. A large proportion of the population in other Latin American countries, such as Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela, is also native American or mixed, called Mestizo.

Only four European countries—Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain—have ratified it. There are indigenous and tribal peoples only in Norway, where the Sami people live in the north. Spain is a federal country, from where most white people in Latin America originated. The only African country to ratify the ILO 169 is the Central African Republic.

Nepal is the only Asian country to have ratified ILO 169. Neither of its two neighbours, India and China, has ratified it. This is in spite of the large indigenous populations living in India’s northeast, such as the Nagas, Mizos, Khasis, Jayantias and tribals living in states such as Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh. China also has many indigenous and tribal people living in the Yunnan province. Neither the US, Canada or Russia has ratified it.

Countries such as Finland, Australia, Germany, Canada, Switzerland and Britain have not signed the convention but their aid agencies, such as DFID, Canadian International Development Agency, Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation, GIZ and JICA, are operating under the basic operating guidelines of a national action plan developed by a Nepali taskforce upon the implementation of the ILO 169. This plan is supported by all major donor agencies in Nepal, including those countries that haven’t signed ILO 169. However, they want their aid projects in Nepal to be based on ILO 169. Doesn’t this indicate a double standard under which these aid agencies operate?

Nepal signed the convention on September 14, 2007, or eight months before elections to the Constituent Assembly (CA). Such an important issue could have waited till the CA elections and could have been discussed there. According to the minutes of the House of Representative for September 10, the bill to ratify the ILO 169 was presented by Bijay Subba, as the House had already promised to establish an inclusive state, along with state restructuring in accordance with its declaration in 2006.

Three members—Prakash Bahadur Gurung, Romi Gauchan Thakali and Navraj Subedi—supported it. Ten members took part in the discussions—Hari Acharya, Bidyadevi Bhandari, Tilak Kumar Menyangbo, Bir Bahadur Lama, Bhakta Bahadur Balayar, Savitri Bogati, Phatik Bahadur Thapa, Tarasam Yangya, Ram Bahadur Gurung and Parshuram Meghi Gurung. The House approved of the resolution by consensus on the same day. This is how Nepal ratified the ILO 169, after only a few hours of discussion in Parliament and without any seminars or discussions with civil society or academic institutions.

There is also the issue of addressing the concerns of a third of the population, which has been branded as “others” in the name of inclusiveness. British anthropologist Fürer-Haimendorf has written that Sherpas entered Nepal from Nangpa-La in Tibet in the 16th century while the Chhetri/Thakuri king Drabya Shah, an ancestor of the Shah dynasty, was already ruling in Gorkha. The Sherpas have become “indigenous people”, according to the classification by the Nepal government while the Chhetris and Brahmins have become “others”.

More than half of the population of the most backward area in the country, the hilly areas of the Mid West and Far West, consist of high-caste Hindus (Brahmins and Chhetris), according to a study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the official state census. It is essential to ensure their inclusiveness and address their backwardness too. It is ironic that all prime ministers in the post-2006 era, including Girija Prasad Koirala, Prachanda, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Baburam Bhattarai, have consented to brand the largest ethnic groups in Nepal as “others”.

Furthermore, a paper written by two Norwegian researchers compares indigenous rights in Norway and Nepal, both of which have signed the ILO 169, and draws interesting parallels between the two. According to the paper, ILO 169 is for people who are indigenous or tribal, and indigeniousness is not necessarily connected to socio-economic disadvantage. In both Norway and Nepal, certain groups not considered to be indigenous have asked to be included in that category, which would “subvert” the rights of the indigenous people already included in the list.

The paper concludes that the introduction of special measures to help historically suppressed people would subvert the plan if some people in both countries feel that their group is being forgotten, discriminated against or threatened or become anxious that indigenous people’s rights is a path towards inter-ethnic strife. They found this to be true in the case of both Norway and Nepal and concluded that states which take the indigenous people discourse as a basis for political action must take great care to convincingly safeguard the interest of the dominant people and communicate in a clear manner that their interests are being taken care of. If not, there is a great risk of backlash in the future.  

Raj was vice-president of the Nepal Council of World Affairs and is secretary of the Nepal Chapter of International PEN, an organisation of writers.

Published on : 2 September 2013, The Kathmandu Post

Back to top