WASHINGTON - It took Thomas Jefferson all of two weeks to write the
Declaration of Independence. The Draft American Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples, under construction at the Organization of American
States, is in its fifth year and counting.
Unlike Jefferson's, the OAS Declaration is about dozens of nations, not
one. And what it outlines is a comprehensive international human rights
instrument rather than a patriotic call to arms.
Working group delegates from indigenous nations met at the OAS Secretariat
Nov. 8 - 12 to parse language on several Declaration articles. The
Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs, under the aegis of the
Permanent Council, has proposed a working deadline of 2006 for finishing
the draft, which includes articles affirming social, legal, political and
environmental rights. Once approved by the OAS general assembly, the
Declaration is intended to be a guiding document for the treatment of
indigenous people throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Indigenous Caucus meetings were lively and spirited. Plenary sessions in
the formal Hall of Nations followed, with proposed draft changes projected
for participants on large screens. Animated discussions between Caucus and
OAS representatives revealed the difficulty of working in two official
languages - Spanish and English - and with member states as varied as
Honduras and the United States, not to mention delegates representing the
Navajo, Lakota, Quechua, Mapuche and Cree.
The Fourth Meeting of Negotiations in the Quest for Points of Consensus, as
it was officially called, bristled with questions. How do "capacity" and
"competence" differ in nuance? If cultural pluralism is recognized, why not
legal pluralism? How can member governments respond meaningfully, asked the
United States, when not all tribal peoples within their borders are
represented? And why does it matter if the declaration goes beyond
principles stated in a nation's domestic laws?
The purpose of the meetings was "to maintain and nourish a unified voice
stating our rights and principles and ensure we understand one another,"
said Rex Lee Jim, a Caucus delegate from the Navajo Nation. And with people
from all over the Americas, he noted, "It's a real education process."
When Caucus members from Latin America argued that the draft affirm
equality before the law, said Jim, many from the North were uneasy. "For
us, equality before the law would mean that everybody was treated equal.
From that perspective, it would diminish our treaty rights," which assert a
special relationship with the federal government. Group consensus was
reached, Jim said, by emphasizing treaty rights in the wording of a later
Many people in Central and South America struggle for freedom of speech,
said Jim, a member of the Navajo Nation Council. "Coming from that kind of
background, I would probably be as adamant about equality before the law as
they are." In the U.S., he continued, "we have that right, but often don't
take advantage of it." Tribes "need to start acting like nations, which
means getting involved with international forums." Of over 500 federally
recognized tribes in the U.S., only a handful attended the meetings. While
the OAS paid expenses for one tribe per country, said Jim, the Navajo
government funded its own delegation.
Far to the South, Sarayacu, a small Quechua-speaking community in Ecuador's
oil-rich southern Amazon, sent community leader Mario Santi. Argentine and
U.S. oil companies, backed by the Ecuadorian government, have been
agitating to drill at Sarayacu against fierce local opposition for 20
years, said Santi. The community has turned down repeated offers of cash
"We don't agree with a development of exploitation," Santi said, "but with
an approach that comes from the Native pueblos, and which the states have
approved at the OAS, and which will assure the quality of education,
health, nutrition and our own technology. This is our type of development,
not one that will destroy the natural world, contaminate the rivers, as
Texaco did in the northeast [Amazon], where there are now tribes that are
extinct and a contamination that's irreversible."
Following government threats to militarize the area for oil development,
the Inter-American Court of Human Rights warned Quito against the use of
force in July 2004.
The plan for oil drilling, driven by Ecuador's external debt, is tied to
negotiations for free-trade, said Ricardo Ulcuango, president of the
Indigenous Parliament of the Americas, established in 1987. "While [states]
are negotiating free trade pacts and biodiversity and intellectual property
agreements of their own" like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA),
Ulcuango said, "there is no indigenous participation in these kinds of
negotiations. So I've seen some progress here, but for most of our
proposals [states] still haven't shown much inclination to undertake them."
Ecuador's foreign debt is another sore point. A deputy in the Ecuadorian
congress, where he heads the Commission of Indigenous Affairs, Ulcuango has
proposed forming a commission to audit the debt in a country where
financial laws favor international capital. Debt-holders abroad can
manipulate internal interest rates, he explained, to the profit of foreign
bondholders rather than the Ecuadorian public.
"We are fighting to make finances more transparent on the one hand, and, on
the other, instead of paying off a high percentage of the debt, investing
the money in things like public health."
As for oil, the constitution does reserve subsurface rights to the state,
Ulcuango acknowledged. But it also promises to consult with indigenous
peoples. In the name of "protecting" subsurface resources like oil, the
nation's largest export, the state wants to exploit them, he said, a
violation of collective rights. "We're not opposed to globalization and
integration" per se, said Ulcuango, "but this globalization, this
integration. Free trade must be negotiated so that it doesn't harm human
International accords can make rigid governments more flexible, Ulcuango
urged. "Our presence is meant to exhort governments to adopt pertinent
measures so that this declaration sees the light of day."
"We need more time, but we don't want to spend the next 15 - 20 years"
hashing it out, said Navajo delegate Jim, concluding his third set of OAS
meetings. "We need to understand that what we do, we know will not have
impact next week. We need to prepare for the long-term."
Working group delegates are scheduled to reconvene in Washington next