by Rhodri C. Williams
Every now and then, a judicial decision comes along that seems to snap a fuzzy area of law into crisp focus. One such decision is the communication released this month by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in what will probably come to be known as the “Endorois Case” (full title: “Centre for Minority Rights Development (Kenya) and Minority Rights Group International on behalf of Endorois Welfare Council v Kenya”). The Endorois people were evicted from their traditional lands near Lake Bogoria in central Kenya in the 1970s, relocated to an area unsuitable for their pastoral way of life and granted only sporadic access to sites central to their spiritual beliefs. In the wake of the eviction, promises to provide compensation and a share of the proceeds from the nature reserve established on the Endorois’ traditional lands were broken.
In its decision, the African Commission finds violations of the rights to freedom of religion, property, health, culture, religion and natural resources under the African Convention on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). The Commission accordingly “recommends” restitution of the Endorois’ traditional lands, recognition of their ownership rights, compensation for harm suffered during the community’s displacement and other measures. There are many noteworthy features of this decision; not least, as Human Rights Watch notes, it is the first time that any international tribunal has found a violation of the right to development. However, it is likely to be most interesting for the current readership in light of the approach the Commission takes to the right of property under Article 14 of the ACHPR – particularly in cases where it is alleged to be held collectively by an entire community. As such, it is worth summarizing the relevant portions of the decision in some detail.
The communication begins with a summary of facts and relatively short discussion of the admissibility of the complaint. After an extended treatment of the allegations and legal arguments made by the complainants, the Commission unfolds its decision on the merits in a cascade of holdings that would seem like self-evident restatements of Kenya’s commitments under international and regional law – except that no tribunal has ever laid them out with such precision and grounded in such a concrete scenario before. First, the Commission rejects the assertion by Kenya that the conditions of modern life and the existence of segments of the Endorois community who do not live according to customary precepts means that the Endorois can no longer be meaningfully distinguished from broader tribal categories and are not a “people” in the sense of the ACHPR. In doing so, they clearly anchor the collective enjoyment of indigenous rights in the protection of ancestral lands:
The African Commission is satisfied that the Endorois are a “people”, a status that entitles them to benefit from provisions of the African Charter that protect collective rights. The African Commission is of the view that the alleged violations of the African Charter are those that go to the heart of indigenous rights – the right to preserve one’s identity through identification with ancestral lands (para. 162).
After finding a violation of the right to freedom of religion under Article 8 of the Convention – again, based in large part on the failure of the Kenyan authorities to provide access as of right to religious sites located on the Endorois’ traditional lands (para. 173), the Commission goes on to consider the property issue under Article 14 directly. The Commission first confirms that the lands in question are the traditional territory of the Endorois, based on centuries of uncontested pre-1973 occupation and use as well as the failure of the respondent Government to dispute this point:
The Complainants argue that apart from a confrontation with the Masai over the Lake Bogoria region three hundred years ago, the Endorois have been accepted by all neighbouring tribes, including the British Crown, as bona fide owners of their land. The Respondent State does not challenge those statements of the Complainants. The only conclusion that could be reached is that the Endorois community has a right to property with regard to its ancestral land, the possessions attached to it, and their animals (para 184).
The Commission goes on to cover a number of preliminary issues, including the appropriate scope and nature of ‘property rights’ in indigenous settings. Here, the Commission takes explicit notice of the informal, unwritten nature of such rights and the vulnerability this gives rise to in cases where they are not given some degree of formal recognition (para. 187). It then rejects Kenyan government objections on the basis of positive discrimination, noting that special measures (in this case, recognition of collectively held indigenous land rights) are not discriminatory where they serve to redress imbalances:
The African Commission shares the Respondent State’s concern over the difficulty involved; nevertheless, the State still has a duty to recognise the right to property of members of the Endorois community, within the framework of a communal property system, and establish the mechanisms necessary to give domestic legal effect to such right recognised in the Charter and international law (para. 196).
The Commission then observes, almost drolly, that the fact of the Endorois’ eviction without process or compensation tends to undermine the Kenyan Government claim that the existing Land Trust system constitutes an adequate measure to protect the Endorois’ rights (para. 199) and goes on to make a pointed argument on the necessity of domestic guarantees of ownership rights for indigenous communities, rather than mere access rights:
The African Commission notes that if international law were to grant access only, indigenous peoples would remain vulnerable to further violations/dispossession by the State or third parties. Ownership ensures that indigenous peoples can engage with the state and third parties as active stakeholders rather than as passive beneficiaries (para. 204, citation omitted).
From here, the Commission asserts that mere settled possession of ancestral lands by indigenous groups (rather than any showing of formal title) is sufficient to trigger the state obligation to provide legal recognition. However, the Commission also explicitly draws the consequence of the above reasoning in cases, such as the present one, where recognition has been withheld: namely , that where the concerned groups have subsequently faced wrongful eviction from their lands, their loss of possession cannot then be invoked to deny their rights, including restitution and compensation. In a nutshell, traditional possession must be recognized as title and wrongful dispossession cannot extinguish it (para. 209).
Having set up this impressive legal architecture, the Commission goes on to make fairly short work of the actual proportionality analysis. The interference (“encroachment”) is crystal clear in the form of evictions, denied access, and subsequent construction, concession and extraction activities on the affected land (para. 210). The public need for a game reserve is given heightened scrutiny in light of the significance of the land to the affected community (para. 212). Accordingly, the means used by the Kenyan government – forced evictions without consultation onto land that denied dignity and livelihood to those affected – were found disproportionate to “any public need served by the Game Reserve” (para. 214). And, for good measure, the Commission finds numerous violations related to the separate requirement of legality, both in relation to the failure to consult the affected community and the paltriness of the compensation proffered. All this, and then the Commission goes on to find violations to the Endorois rights to enjoyment of their culture and development under Article 17. The resulting prescription is sweeping:
The African Commission recommends that the Respondent State:
(a) Recognise rights of ownership to the Endorois and Restitute Endorois ancestral land.
(b) Ensure that the Endorois community has unrestricted access to Lake Bogoria and surrounding sites for religious and cultural rites and for grazing their cattle.
(c) Pay adequate compensation to the community for all the loss suffered.
(d) Pay royalties to the Endorois from existing economic activities and ensure that they benefit from employment possibilities within the Reserve.
(e) Grant registration to the Endorois Welfare Committee.
(f) Engage in dialogue with the Complainants for the effective implementation of these recommendations.
(g) Report on the implementation of these recommendations within three months from the date of notification.
Much of the “padding” between the key observations and holdings summarized above consist of extensive reference to international and regional human rights standards and jurisprudence, and particularly that of the Inter-American Court and Commission. It might be surmised that the Commission sensed the extent to which it was breaking new ground and took pains to ground its decision as thoroughly as possible in emerging understandings of indigenous rights. One might hope that this will also increase the likelihood of the Commission’s decision influencing other regional human rights interpretations in turn, though this would perhaps be less relevant to Inter-American system, where recognition of indigenous community rights are relatively advanced.
However, it could be of interest in the European system, particularly if the logic behind the decision survives the leap from indigenous communities (few of which are recognized in Europe, the main exception being the Nordic Sami people) to national minority communities; the latter are both common and recognized in Europe and share many of the key criteria discussed in the Endorois case as markers both of indigenous identity and vulnerability, such as attachment to specific traditional lands, self-identification, and historical persecution. Indeed the key question more broadly speaking may revolve around whether international law will ultimately make the leap of faith reflected in the formulation of Principle 9 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement:
States are under a particular obligation to protect against the displacement of indigenous peoples, minorities, peasants, pastoralists and other groups with a special dependency on and attachment to their lands.
In other words, notwithstanding the achievement the Commission’s decision represents, there is an arguable case that international law should move from protecting land rights based on a formal finding that a community is “indigenous”, as in the Endorois Case, to protecting land rights based on the underlying dynamic of dependence on and attachment to informally held land seen among many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, “indigenous” or not. But that said, the most interesting thing for the time being will be to watch what happens as governments throughout Africa begin to come to terms with their new acquaintance, the “P” in ACHPR.