The Sentinelese

Very little is known about the Sentinelese. No outsider speaks their language. The population is estimated to number between 50 and 150 people, and it is unclear if the number is stable.

We know that they have been hostile to outsiders historically. There has been speculation that they choose to reject contact because of previous bad experience. But at other times, there has been peaceful interaction. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the Indian government sent gift-giving expeditions to the Sentinelese. These gifts were accepted. The expeditions only stopped after it became clear that contact carries the risk of an epidemic.

What did the Sentinelese make of the contact and of its subsequent withdrawal? It is hard to tell without communicating and it seems presumptuous to understand their actions in terms of “choice,” a concept that might make little sense outside our individualistic societies.

Emergency interventions

Evidence from the Amazon and from other Andaman Islands shows that contacting isolated tribes can have devastating effects on their health. Their immune systems, developed in isolation, are unprepared for outside pathogens, which can decimate populations. Avoiding such exposure is prudent.

But it is difficult to maintain isolation indefinitely. Would there be a way of delivering health care in case of accidental exposure to pathogens or natural disaster? The declared goal of a no-contact policy is protecting, as one Indian officer said, the “treasure” that are the uncontacted peoples. But how long can a small population, that forms relationships exclusively within the group, stay healthy? It is possible, viewed from this perspective, that a “no contact” policy is too blunt to protect them from disappearance.

And does the right to autonomy necessarily entail the right to be left alone? Autonomy means self-governance. The UNDRIP grants autonomy to indigenous peoples “in matters relating to their internal and local affairs.” But it is up for debate whether, if survival were at stake, it would be deemed a “local” or an “internal” affair. We must ask what the status of the right to autonomy is against other, potentially competing entitlements all humans have such as the right “to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.”

Ultimately, we should not presume to know what uncontacted peoples want, purely based on their behaviour towards those who, like Chau, trespass on their territory. This knowledge could only be achieved by means of communication. Yes, establishing communication puts uncontacted peoples at risk. But so does opting for “no contact.” While we contemplate this impasse, we should reexamine the commitments made in our human rights documents. Because it’s possible that some rights can only be realised at the expense of others.

Karolina Follis, lecturer, Lancaster University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article. We welcome your comments at

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