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OAS goes another round on indigenous rights negotiations

WASHINGTON - For the great many among us who prefer events to processes,
John F. Maisto counsels patience.

"Negotiation is difficult," said the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of
American States, "particularly when it involves governments, but especially
individual indigenous groups ... You have some important new ground to
plow, but the important thing is, we're doing it."

Maisto declined to project a date for completion of the Inter-American
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which underwent its fifth
negotiating session Feb. 7 - 9. "We're still in the earlier stages," he
said.

Dialogue on the declaration between the OAS and indigenous groups from 1996
to 2003 produced a "consolidated text" draft declaration, issued by the
former chairman of the OAS working group on the issue, Ambassador Eduardo
Ferrero Costa of Peru. (Costa has been succeeded as chairman by Ambassador
Juan Leon Alvarado of Guatemala.) The document took as its starting point
two previous declarations, one by the United Nations from 1994 and another
by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights from 1997; it also
incorporates national opinion and indigenous perspective as they have
evolved since.

The five formal negotiations since 2003 have brought OAS ambassadors and
indigenous delegates through the draft declaration, but countless thorny
issues and fine points of language were tabled in the process. They will
have to be revisited.

If the diplomatic process can produce consensus on a draft, the declaration
would have to be formally adopted by the OAS, representing 34 Western
Hemisphere nations. OAS ambassadors represent these national governments.
Historically, the OAS has been characterized by conservative positions
vis-a-vis the status quo.

Maisto, former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and Venezuela, has more
recently served as a foreign policy advisor to the U.S. Southern Command,
as a special assistant to President George W. Bush, and as senior director
for Western Hemisphere affairs to current Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice. His background perhaps gives extra weight to a point he was at pains
to make: "We're very serious about our policy of reaching out to indigenous
peoples in the United States first, and then we support the inter-American
system."

In materials distributed by the State Department in advance of Maisto's
speech, the Bush administration commits the United States to continuing
support for the OAS declaration process: "The U.S. delegation believes
there is a strong will among both indigenous representatives and OAS member
countries to work together on the Declaration and, ultimately, that there
will be a will and ability to reach consensus."

And in his brief speech to a large gathering of indigenous delegates and
OAS officials, he quoted Rice during the recent Senate hearings on her
confirmation as Secretary of State: "'We in the United States need to
associate ourselves, I think, with the struggle of those who are trying to
overcome stratification [diplomatese for severe social discrepancies based on the class, status and income of underprivileged groups]. We can't just
associate ourselves with an old order. We have to be concerned about the
indigenous peoples who are trying to find their rightful place in a
political and economic system. Our own history should tell us that that's
an extremely important task ahead.'"

Maisto's speech, and a reception honoring indigenous delegates in
Washington to work on the OAS draft declaration, took place at the National
Museum of the American Indian.