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Native nations negotiate in La Paz on draft indigenous rights declaration

LA PAZ, Bolivia - Representatives from the Organization of American States and indigenous representatives from throughout the continent met in La Paz April 23 - 27 in the 10th session of negotiations to draft an American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

''La Paz has moved us beyond the pessimism that initially surrounded the negotiations on this declaration,'' said Guatemalan representative and Working Group chairman Juan Leon in a statement released by the OAS.

Agreement was reached on language in the declaration which states that Native inhabitants of the Americas have a right to freely express their own spirituality, to pass on and teach their traditions, to have unhindered access to all health institutions and health services, and to receive an education at all levels without any discrimination.

Leon noted in his closing speech that the deplorable conditions in which indigenous people of the OAS member states lived made the completion of the declaration all the more urgent.

A substantive, in-depth, broad-based declaration ''is necessary if the democracies of the Americas are to function at their fullest while efficiently and effectively asserting the rights of indigenous peoples,'' he said.

The OAS is made up of 34 countries of the Americas, including the Caribbean, but excluding Cuba.

June Lorenzo, Laguna Pueblo representative and North American co-chair of the indigenous caucus, told Indian Country Today that although progress was made on certain issues, Native representatives were facing blocks on territorial rights by the new Canadian government and the government of Colombia.

''Canada has done a 180-degree turn on indigenous issues since the new government was elected,'' she said.

Colombia, like many South American countries, has constitutional ownership to underground rights of the land where Native peoples live, she said, making it more difficult for Native nations to assert their rights in territories which contain resources like oil and gas.

Some South American governments were also failing to involve the indigenous people within their countries in the draft declaration process, she added.

''Every country is supposed to do a consultation with indigenous people on the declaration, but that hasn't been happening.''

There is no specific deadline for completing the declaration, and indigenous representatives are divided on how fast to push to complete the declaration.

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''Some don't want to push the process and end up with a weaker draft,'' Lorenzo said, adding that the failure of the United Nations to approve the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People has also slowed the process of the OAS declaration.

Though their effects and goals were similar, the United Nations and OAS declarations also had differences, said Lorenzo.

''With the American declaration, we already have institutions in place, like inter-American tribunals, where the declaration can have a very practical result.''

The process is also more flexible at the OAS meetings, where members are freer to redraft the declaration and don't have to stick to editing an original document as they do in the United Nations, she said.

There was also more participation of indigenous peoples in the OAS meetings, where accreditation is easier, she continued.

''Physically, you can see the difference. In the OAS meetings, indigenous representatives sit at the table with government representatives. At the U.N., they sit behind the government representatives.''

The core group of the indigenous caucus consists of about 20 people, including representatives from the Haudenosaunee and Navajo nations. Attendance of additional Native representatives varies from meeting to meeting.

Despite the obstacles put forward by Canada and Colombia, Lorenzo felt the meeting was a success, and was hopeful about eventually completing the declaration.

''For some reason we accomplish more when we don't meet in Washington,'' she said, noting that the meetings outside of North America often included fuller participation by Native peoples of both continents, because of the transportation cost for people in Latin American and Caribbean countries.

The OAS, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was born of a 1948 meeting of government representatives to fight communism on the American continent.

Today, the OAS emphasizes the promotion of democracy, human rights, anti-drug and anti-terrorism efforts, as well as the creation of a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which has met opposition from many Latin American indigenous organizations.

The next meeting will be hosted by Venezuela in September.