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Crimean Tatars demand recognition as indigenous people

Ukraine’s Constitution mentions indigenous peoples several times, but there is no legal definition for the term nor is it stated which peoples can be considered indigenous

We are on our land!  (photo: Radio Svoboda)

Crimean Tatars want Ukraine’s government to recognize them as one of the indigenous peoples of Ukraine.  This would comply with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which Ukraine however abstained from voting on in September 2007.

Mustafa Jemilev, Head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar  People, explained to Radio Svoboda that the term “indigenous peoples” is used several times in Ukraine’s Constitution, but there is no exact legal definition for the term. Nor is it stated which people’s can be considered indigenous.  Jemilev believes that this is why Ukraine did not support the 2007 UN Declaration.

The situation could, however, change following adoption by the Cabinet of Ministers of a draft law on a Concept Framework for Ukraine’s Ethno-National Policy”. This is due to be tabled in parliament shortly.  Mustafa Jemilev explains that though there is no direct mention of the Crimean Tatars, the document does contain a clear definition of the term “indigenous peoples”.

Natalya Belitser from the Pilyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy believes that three ethnic communities in Ukraine are entitled to be considered indigenous peoples: the Crimean Tatars, the Karaim, and the Krymchaki.

“The Crimean Tatars, Karaim, and the Krymchaki are undoubtedly indigenous peoples, not national minorities. She points out, for example, that they do not have a kin-state and are therefore at a disadvantage to national minorities who may be protected through bilateral agreements and can often receive help in promoting their cultural, educational and linguistic identity.  She is convinced that their status as indigenous peoples needs to be regulated through legislation, including through reference to the norms and provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”.

Natalya Belitser is convinced that it was a mistake for Ukraine to abstain from the vote back in 2007, and it is time for this to be rectified, with this being supported by the international community.

Ali Khamzin, Head of the Mejlis’ International Section, also hopes that Kyiv will change its current policy towards the Crimean Tatars which he calls the most discriminatory in all the years of Ukraine’s independence.  He says that the situation has worsened, and that they are seeing overt discrimination against the Crimean Tatar people, with further confrontation with the authorities lying ahead.

The UN Declaration does not simply protect indigenous peoples from discrimination and assimilation, but also affirms their right to self-determination, including through autonomy and self-government. Indigenous peoples also have the right to maintain and consolidate their particular political and other institutions.

According to Crimean Tatar activist Nedim Khalilov, it is these last provisions which are not accepted by the Ukrainian government and public. He believes that Ukraine is not willing to acknowledge the Crimean Tatars’ right to self-government and autonomy.

One of the key characteristics of indigenous peoples is that regardless of their legal status, they preserve some or all social, economic, cultural and political institutions. An example of these is the Kurultai-Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.  Also fundamental is an awareness of themselves as being indigenous to that place.  Natalya Belitser is adamant that all of this undoubtedly applies to the Crimean Tatars.

Based on a report by Volodymyr Prytula at Radio Svoboda

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