A 17-year wait pays off for Indigenous Peoples
Santo Domingo.- When Héctor Huertas attended the first meeting to draft anAmerican declaration on indigenous peoples in 1999, he thought the end was notfar off. Neither he, nor anyone else in that room in Washington, D.C., imaginedthat the end was 17 years away.
That train finally reached its destination today at theGeneral Assembly of the Organization of American States in Santo Domingo, wherethe member states adopted the American Declaration on the Rights of IndigenousPeoples by acclamation.
The declaration is the first instrument in the history ofthe OAS to promote and protect the rights of the indigenous peoples of theAmericas.
Huertas, a Panamanian lawyer and indigenous leader whobelongs to the Guna people, took part not only in the inaugural meeting, but inthe entire process that lasted the best part of two decades. Hence his visiblesatisfaction as he stood up today to address the General Assembly following theDeclaration’s adoption. “Today the OAS is honoring an historical debt toindigenous peoples by acknowledging the rights of the more than 50 millionindigenous men, women, and children who live in the Americas,” he said.
“The OAS has honoredan historical debt to indigenous peoples from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.”
Huertas stressed that the Declaration introduces a newframework for relations between states and indigenous peoples, includinggreater respect for their human rights and their consideration on topics suchas sustainable development.
The Declaration also makes profound changes within statesthat paves the way for genuine democracy and participation for indigenouspeoples in each state. It recognizes the rights to self-determination, land,resources, and, above all, free and informed prior consent,” he said.
“The OAS is ushering a new phase in relations with aninstrument that could give indigenous peoples a say in all aspects ofdevelopment in the Hemisphere. We are even going to ask the OAS to let usparticipate as indigenous peoples and not as civil society,” Huertas added.
“Historic Milestone for the Americas”
“The Declarationrecognizes our right to self-determination.”
Adelfo Regino Montes, an indigenous Mexican lawyer from theMixe people of Oaxaca, was also in Santo Domingo, where this “historicmilestone for the Americas,” as he put it, was reached.
Regino Montes said that the Declaration represents a strideforward in terms of both individual and collective rights as it recognizesfundamental rights, including “self-determination and autonomy and land rights,which is very important because in countries like Mexico and Brazil the forestshave been preserved thanks to the indigenous peoples.”
The representative of the Mixe people considered it valuablethat the Declaration includes the issue of “free, prior consent,” which compelsstates to inform indigenous peoples about infrastructure and developmentprojects before they start. “It is important that the Declaration recognizesthat the indigenous people who may be affected must be consulted before anyadministrative or legislative steps are taken. Unfortunately, in the past ourpeoples have had to suffer having projects imposed on them,” he added.
The Declaration recognizes:
The collective organization and multicultural andmultilingual character of indigenous peoples.
The self-identification of people who consider themselvesindigenous.
Special protection for peoples in voluntary isolation orinitial contact, such as certain peoples of the Amazon, which is an aspect thatdistinguishes it from other similar initiatives.
That progress in promoting and effectively protecting therights of the indigenous peoples of the Americas is a priority for the OAS.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bolivia, DavidChoquehuanca, emphasized that the Declaration recognizes “all rights: not onlyhuman rights—which are individual—but also collective rights, such as economic,social, and cultural rights.” “We therefore applaud the adoption here in theDominican Republic of this Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ofthe Organization of American States,” Foreign Minister Choquehuanca added.
Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Perucelebrated the adoption of the Declaration in the plenary of the Assembly. JuanGabriel Morales, Mexico’s Deputy Director General for Hemispheric and SecurityAffairs, described it as the “first hemispheric document that seeks to promoteand protect the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and, alongwith the United Nations Declaration, it is a basic instrument for the survival,dignity, and wellbeing of the indigenous peoples of our hemisphere.” Mexico’srepresentative continued: “The Declaration emphasizes the recognition of andrespect for the rights of indigenous peoples to collective action and to theirown legal, social, political, and economic systems or institutions.”
The Deputy Foreign Minister of Nicaragua, Denis Moncada,said that the adoption of the Declaration was the “historical vindication ofthe indigenous peoples of the Americas, who have suffered the consequences ofcolonialism and neocolonialism and, with that, the extermination of theirpopulations, segregation, exclusion, and the loss of their natural habitat. …We cannot deny the important contribution made by the indigenous people of theAmericas to the multicultural and multilingual richness of our societies.”
Since the 1970s, the Inter-American Commission on HumanRights has maintained that for historical reasons and moral and humanitarianprinciples, states have a sacred commitment to provide indigenous peoples withspecial protection. In 1990, the Commission created the Office of theRapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to attend to those peoples thatare particularly exposed to human rights violations on account of theirvulnerable situations and to strengthen the Commission’s work in that area.
Key points of the Declaration
Self-identification as indigenous peoples will be afundamental criterion for determining to whom the Declaration applies.
Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination.
Gender equality: indigenous women have collective rightsthat are indispensable for their existence, wellbeing, and comprehensivedevelopment as peoples.
Indigenous persons and communities have the right to belongto one or more indigenous peoples, in accordance with the identity, traditions,and customs of belonging of each people.
States shall recognize fully their juridical personality,respecting their forms of organization and promoting the full exercise of therights recognized in the Declaration.
They have the right to maintain, express, and freelydevelop their cultural identity.
They have the right to not be subjected to any form ofgenocide.
They have the right not to be subject to racism, racialdiscrimination, xenophobia, or other related forms of intolerance.
They have the right to their own cultural identity andintegrity and to their cultural heritage.
They have the right to autonomy or self-government inmatters relating to their internal affairs.
Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation or initialcontact have the right to remain in that condition and to live freely and inaccordance with their cultures.
They have the rights and guarantees recognized in nationaland international labor law.
They have the right to the lands, territories, andresources that they have traditionally owned, occupied, used, or acquired.