Canada’s report on missing indigenous women and girls is alarming and horrifying. The results of a government enquiry launched by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016 revealed a few weeks ago that in recent decades, violence against Indigenous women and Indigenous girls has reached the levels of genocide. Although the report does not come with a conclusive number of deaths or disappearances, there have been estimations which calculate the number of victims as more than a thousand.
The term genocide used by the report is not something of lesser relevance. In fact, the word genocide was first thought up by the Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1944 after the heinous acts committed in World War II against the Jewish population, and literally means the killing of a race: genos from the Greek word for race or tribe, and cide which signifies killing in Latin. In December 1946, before the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined the horrendous practice, the UN General Assembly through Resolution 96 (I) established that genocide was a crime under the international law. Currently, the definition contained within the Genocide Convention, which has been used in Yugoslavia and Rwanda and was also adopted by the International Criminal Court, establishes that genocide means the physical destruction in whole or in part, of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.
Although the present definition of genocide primarily covers the physical destruction of a group with the practice known as cultural genocide left out of the convention, Canada has faced allegations of conducting actions and policies that have attempted to destroy the specific characteristics of aboriginal communities in its territory, actions prohibited today under the current international legal system. The program of residential schools was a government policy that aimed for the total assimilation of Indigenous children into mainstream values. Under this program they were forced to learn English or French and obliged to adopt the Christian religion; this might meet the criteria for the conduct of “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” described in the Convention as a form of genocide, since it is estimated that at least 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and obliged to attend the residential schools.
The above was acknowledged by the report and according to some media statements the document specifically states that this genocide has been permitted by colonial structures, residential schools and a systematic breach of human rights that has led to an increasing rate of violence against the Indigenous population, particularly toward Indigenous women and girls.
Today, under the existing stipulations of the law, genocide can only be committed by persons and its punishment as an autonomous crime is only applicable to individual perpetrators. Nonetheless, States are legally bound under other Human Rights instruments to protect the lives of their inhabitants, including those ones of the Indigenous Peoples living within their borders, under the penalty incurred for breaches of their international obligations.
The International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 for example, especially safeguards Indigenous Peoples’ right to health and their rights concerning the protection of the natural resources connected to their lands. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples confirms the rights of self-determination and the duty of States to cooperate with Indigenous Peoples regarding the development of any project that may affect them. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have also reiterated to Governments, Indigenous organisations, nongovernmental organisations and multilateral bodies, the urgency for the adoption of internationally binding treaties and domestic legislation which protect and preserve the rights of Indigenous groups.
Finally, the report released by the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls recommended 231 measures to eradicate violence against Indigenous Peoples, standards that should be put in motion by the government of Trudeau if he wants us to believe that from this time, things will be different and that this issue will no longer be an issue ignored by the authorities.