Spotlight on indigenous rights in Namibia

First ever visit by UN Special Rapporteur to Namibia

Delme Cupido's picture


Senior Programme Officer: Indigenous Peoples Rights

September 20th, 2012

The San are Namibia’s most marginalised and excluded people but for the next week they will, finally, be in the international spotlight – as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples embarks on his first visit to the country.

James Anaya will be in Namibia from 20th-28th September at the invitation of the government to analyse the situation of indigenous peoples and recommend measures to improve their lives.

“I will examine the situation of indigenous peoples in, among others, the areas of lands and resources, development, and social and economic rights, in light of relevant international standards including those in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 with an affirmative vote by Namibia,” said Anaya.

During his mission, Anaya will meet with the Namibian authorities and civil society organisations, including OSISA, as well as indigenous groups and communities. And it will very quickly become clear to him how timely and important his visit is.  

It is five years since Namibia voted for UNDRIP but very little has been achieved in terms of implementing the rights of indigenous communities that are set out in the Declaration. While the Namibian government has shown some concern at the plight of its indigenous communities – particularly with the establishment of a San Development Programme in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister – much remains to be done.

Indeed, notwithstanding its support for UNDRIP in the General Assembly, Namibia is still reluctant to acknowledge, officially, the status of indigenous peoples as indigenous, preferring to categorize them as ‘marginalised communities’.

On other fronts, too, progress towards the realisation of the rights of indigenous peoples has been uneven.  For example, the Namibian government withholds recognition of their traditional authorities (TA) from the Khwe, even though it now recognises the TAs of the Hai||om, and the Ju/’oan San.  This lack of recognition has been the cause of inter communal strife between the San and other dominant groups who regard the Khwe as being their ‘subjects’.

It has also led to a further marginalisation of the Khwe on their traditional lands where they are under near constant surveillance by intelligence agencies, and where their rights to self-representation, self-determination, and their freedom of assembly – in addition to a host of economic, social and cultural rights – are consistently undermined as noted in a research report by the ILO and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

The Special Rapporteur’s visit also comes against the backdrop of a worrying increase in attempted ‘land grabs’ of the San’s traditional lands by commercial farmers, often with the complicity of local politicians and law enforcement agencies.

Furthermore, the visit comes as rumours have started swirling about the revival of plans to go ahead with a controversial hydroelectric scheme on the traditional lands of the OvaHimba, which they fear will flood their sacred sites and ancestral burial grounds, and lead to a massive forced relocation and the destruction of their unique way of life.

As the world’s governments, civil society and indigenous peoples prepare for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014, when a review will be undertaken of the progress towards the fulfilment of the rights of Indigenous Peoples during the 2nd Indigenous Decade (2004/5 – 2014/15), the Special Rapporteur’s visit is an ideal opportunity for indigenous peoples in Namibia to ensure that their voice is heard.


About the author(s)

Delme is the Indigenous Peoples Rights Senior Programme Officer. Delme was the APM in OSISA’s HIV programme from 2006-2010. Prior to joining OSISA, he was the Coordinator of the AIDS Law Unit of the Legal Assistance Centre, a public interest law centre based in Namibia. Delme was active in the international HIV Treatment Access movement, was a founding trustee of the AIDS Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, a founding member of the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition, the Pan African Treatment Access Movement and the Collaborative Fund for HIV. Delme holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Cape Town, and obtained a bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of the Western Cape.


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