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Staff writer

The Ainu face difficulties in preserving their rights because they lack a formal legal relationship with the government, a United Nations-appointed human rights expert has concluded in a landmark report.

Compiled by U.N. special rapporteur Miguel Alfonso Martinez, the report was presented in late July to the 16th U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations. The product of nine years of work will be officially submitted to the ongoing meeting of a subcommittee under the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

The report — considered the fundamental basis for future discussions on the rights of indigenous peoples and regarded as the first expression of U.N. discontent over the Ainu law enacted last year — is expected to spur the already heated debate over the minority’s specific rights as an indigenous group.

Obtained by The Japan Times, the report, titled “Study on treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between states and indigenous populations,” says the Ainu have “never actually entered into a consensual juridical relation with any state.”

The lack of such an agreement deprives indigenous groups of their human rights and freedoms, the report says. Other indigenous minorities in a similar position as the Ainu include the Yanomami of Brazil, the Maya of Guatemala and the San of Botswana, it says.

Martinez left the decision to seek such an agreement to each indigenous group in question. But in the final section of the report, the Cuban international-law specialist calls on each country with indigenous groups to a take step toward resolving such problems by setting up an independent, publicly funded body with the authority to deal exclusively with indigenous issues.

Such issues include disputes between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples and the drafting of new legislation according to the needs of such minorities. “The report urges the Japanese government to clarify its legal relationship with the Ainu, although it doesn’t directly say so,” said Hideaki Uemura, a Meiji Gakuin University researcher and leader of the Citizens’ Diplomatic Center for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples who attended the U.N. assembly.

The government last year enacted the Law to Promote Ainu Culture and Disseminate Knowledge of Ainu Traditions, replacing the 1899 Former Aborigine Protection Law, following years of condemnation by the Ainu and their supporters.

However, the new law designates the Ainu as a Japanese aboriginal minority only in a separate, nonbinding resolution, failing to touch upon their indigenous rights.

Pointing to Martinez’s remark that completion of a legal relationship between countries and indigenous groups will “contribute to a process of confidence-building that may bring substantial benefits,” Uemura wants the government to examine whether the new law serves to build such mutual confidence between the Ainu and the general Japanese population.

“The government did not go through any official pathway during the colonization of the Ainu people,” said Professor Toshikazu Aiuchi of Otaru University of Commerce in Hokkaido, another expert on the Ainu issue.

The Ainu are considered the original inhabitants of Hokkaido, with an ethnicity and culture distinct from those of the Japanese. But the Meiji Era government claimed all of Hokkaido and incorporated the Ainu as Japanese under the Family Registration Law.

“Ainu people didn’t decide to become Japanese on their own. We must re-examine the colonization process to determine whether it was fair and carried out with the Ainu people’s agreement,” Aiuchi said.

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