The images flew around the world. The teepees. The tear gas. The Indigenous water protectors’ camps. The boots advancing in unison as security forces cracked down on protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline. The defiance. The hundreds of arrests.
“While Sioux leaders advocated for protests to remain peaceful, State law enforcement officials, private security companies and the North Dakota National Guard employed a militarized response to protests,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, wrote in a recent report. A mercenary firm had been surveilling the pipeline opposition movement and engaged in military-style counterterrorism measures, according to an investigative report published by The Intercept.
The use of counterterrorism tactics against Indigenous protesters in the US reflects a global trend. But in many parts of the world, and particularly in Latin America, Indigenous leaders and activists are also openly and explicitly criminalized as terrorists. The use of anti-terrorism and national security legislation and policies against Indigenous activists is becoming more and more common.
Ill-Defined Anti-Terrorism Laws Permit Targeted Criminalization
“Several of the countries that I’ve been to, and from the communications I’ve received, have indicated that the anti-terrorism act or the national security act is the one that’s being used more against Indigenous peoples,” Tauli-Corpuz told Truthout. With laws defining terrorism in a vague manner, governments can consider blockades against logging companies to be terrorist acts, for example, she said.
“It’s easy to put that under the umbrella of terrorism. That’s a big problem that it’s in the hands of governments that have several laws that they can just use to trump up charges against Indigenous peoples and now they have even more possibilities to do that because of the anti-terrorism acts,” said Tauli-Corpuz. “The coming into being of these anti-terrorism laws is exacerbating the situation of impunity and criminalization of Indigenous peoples.”
Tauli-Corpuz has personal experience with that kind of targeted criminalization. Her name was one of 600 on a list that included 47 Indigenous leaders and activists in the mixTauli-Corpuz told Truthout. They were all labeled terrorists by the government of the Philippines, accused of ties to one or both groups also branded as terrorist organizations: The Communist Party and the New People’s Army, an armed left-wing guerrilla movement. Tauli-Corpuz recently had her name removed from the list, but it required taking up individual legal action, she said.
False associations with groups labeled as terrorist organizations place Indigenous leaders at risk whether or not their names are later removed from the list. “That’s very dangerous,” said Tauli-Corpuz, adding that it is particularly so in a country where extrajudicial executions have become the norm.
Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in 2016 and in the two years since he took office, extrajudicial killings and death squad activity has soared in the country. Duterte has openly advocated for murdering drug users and has bragged about personally executing suspects during his long-running tenure as mayor of Davao, where the Philippine Commission on Human Rights documented a systematic practice of extrajudicial killings while he was in office.
Militarized Conservation Threatens Indigenous People in Kenya
Tauli-Corpuz raised the issue of the use of anti-terrorism laws in her recent broader report about the criminalization of Indigenous peoples. Published in August, the thematic report addresses “the drastic increase in attacks and acts of violence against, criminalization of and threats aimed at indigenous peoples, particularly those arising in the context of large-scale projects involving extractive industries, agribusiness, infrastructure, hydroelectric dams and logging.”
“In several countries, increased militarization adds to the threats against indigenous peoples,” wrote Tauli-Corpuz.
That is the case in the Embobut forest in western Kenya, where Kenya Forest Service guards have been hunting down and evicting Indigenous Sengwer residents from their ancestral forest lands. Tauli-Corpuz has highlighted the case in the past and expressed her long-standing concern again in her recent report. Evictions, arrests and attacks have been ongoing for years, and this past January, forest guards shot and killed Robert Kirotich, a Sengwer herder. Despite a court injunction ordering a halt to evictions, as well as ongoing land rights litigation and international awareness campaigns, little has changed, says Yator Kiptum, an outspoken Sengwer community leader.
“Criminalization of the community members has not changed,” he told Truthout. The crackdown continues as forest service guards attempt to hunt down Sengwer residents hiding out in their ancestral forest lands following past evictions. Government officials have threatened Kiptum and other Sengwer community leaders and accused them of supplying weapons to forest dwellers. Officials have also openly labeled people in the forest as bandits and criminals in order to justify its militarized response. But forest residents hiding out from forest service guards following evictions and the burning of their homes are Sengwer community members, said Kiptum.
“People are still inside the forest. It is hide and seek,” he said. “Some are forced to live in caves.”
The Embobut forest and other Indigenous regions of Kenya are sites of contentious conservation and climate change projects with international backing. In the case of the Embobut forest, following the killing of the Sengwer herder by forest guards earlier this year, the European Commission suspended funding for one such project, part of the financing for which was destined to the Kenya Forest Service. Kiptum is calling for a suspension of international financing of all conservation and climate change projects in Sengwer and other Indigenous lands until evictions are halted and until free, prior and informed consent is obtained through a meaningful consultation process.
“They should really have a human rights approach and ensure free, prior and informed consent be key in their projects,” he said. The European Commission, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and others supported conservation-related projects in Indigenous lands in Kenya before being forced to backtrack in the face of opposition over their failure to respect land rights and engage in consultation, and in light of security forces’ violent response, said Kiptum. “It’s not the way to conserve our eco-system.”
Kenya is highlighted in the UN Special Rapporteur’s report as one of the countries where Tauli-Corpuz has recorded a “disconcerting escalation of violent attacks.” The Philippines and India are also noted as countries with “a significant and rising number of such attacks,” but all remaining countries on that list are from Latin America: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Peru.
Criminalization of Indigenous Activists Ramps Up in Latin America
The use of anti-terrorism legislation and national security acts to criminalize Indigenous activists and community leaders is also of particular concern in Latin America. In Chile, the government continues to use dictatorship-era anti-terrorism legislation to arrest and prosecute Mapuche leaders and activists battling logging and other companies in their territories. In Ecuador, Sápara leaders were charged with terrorist acts for opposing oil exploitation, and Shuar leaders have been charged with terrorism for resistance to mining and oil industries. In Peru, Indigenous community leaders defending their lands from mining projects have been accused of terrorism.
“One big problem with that is that usually these anti-terrorism acts have very vague definitions of what is terrorism, so anything that they would like to target against Indigenous peoples, they can just say it’s covered under the anti-terrorism act,” Tauli-Corpuz told Truthout.
In Central America, new laws and legal reforms addressing terrorism have been sweeping the region, raising alarm due to the vague and broad definitions they contain. In Honduras, legislators passed a series of criminal code reforms last year. After several failed attempts, in September 2017, the controversial article concerning terrorism was approved despite boisterous opposition due to the fact that its vague definition of terrorism could allow judges to interpret terrorist acts and groups to include almost any kind of social movement protest.
In Nicaragua in July of this year, amid an ongoing violent political crisis during which hundreds of people, mostly opposition protesters, have been killed, the Congress (controlled by the ruling Sandinista Party) passed a new anti-terrorism law, the Law against Money Laundering, the Financing of Terrorism, and the Propagation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The law is already being used against protesters and social movement leaders.
In Guatemala, there are several relevant initiatives. In 2014, Guatemalan lawmakers passed the Law for Highway Circulation Free of Any Kind of Obstacles. Dubbed “the speedbump law,” it imposes severe penalties for any unsanctioned obstruction of public roadways. Though it does not explicitly include protest actions, social movement and human rights groups believe the law will be used to target Indigenous and campesino roadblock actions and marches and to enable more serious charges for supposed crimes against national interests with regard to any obstruction of bridges, highways and other key infrastructure.
One of the related initiatives currently up for approval by the Guatemalan Congress is the Law Against Terrorist Acts. The introductory justification text sent along with the initial bill proposal is an odd jumble of arguments, citing gang and cartel crimes, 9/11, and the alleged potential for Islamic terrorists to use Central America as a pathway to the US. As in Honduras and Nicaragua, the law’s broad definition of terrorist acts is a concern, though in the case of Guatemala, the definition does specifically mention both critical infrastructure and freedom of movement. As with “the speedbump law,” there is widespread concern that it is designed in part for use against Indigenous and campesino highway blockades.
Along with “the speedbump law,” reforms to the criminal code and other laws such as the Law Against Organized Crime are also contributing to the criminalization of Indigenous leaders, says Juan Castro, a lawyer with Bufete para Pueblos Indígenas, a law firm of and for Indigenous peoples.
“The criminal code reform with regard to kidnapping, for example, permitted the criminal prosecution of seven Indigenous authorities in the north of Huehuetenango, accused of kidnapping. I was one of the defense lawyers for the community leaders and we managed to unravel the kidnapping charge because there was no intention whatsoever to kidnap anyone,” Castro told Truthout. “[Prosecutors] took advantage of a criminal definition that was very broad.”
Castro is also defending an Indigenous activist in eastern Guatemala who is accused of criminal association. “It’s a crime that is contemplated in the Law Against Organized Crime,” he said. “It’s clear that they’re using criminal law to persecute people.”