Indian Country Today: Seeking justice, Latin indigenous leaders come to testify

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WASHINGTON – Indigenous leaders from four Latin American countries came to Washington D.C. last month to assert that their respective governments are criminalizing their right to protest, preventing them from seeking justice.

In what they called an Indigenous Diplomatic Mission, representatives from Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile presented testimony and documented evidence at the 134 period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. With the assistance of American co-petitioners Indian Law Resource Center, they met with members of Congress, representatives of the Obama administration and the United Nations.

The outreach is part of a related movement toward the passage of an American Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.

But the main focus for the members of the Andean Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations was getting their message to the IACHR and the international community. They say their protests are being criminalized and their people marginalized, even killed.

“We came here because we are defending our mother, Pachamama” said Miguel Palacin Quispe, chair of the CAOI and president of the National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affected by Mining at hearings March 20.

“We are the victims of this criminalization and persecution. . for the thousands of instances of human rights violations in our territories we have requested this hearing,” Palacin Quispe said in his testimony before the IACHR, which acts as a consultative body to the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Peruvian leader told commissioners about problems with the “extractive model” of business in Peru that has oil and other large companies engaging in “irrational exploitation,” causing “enormous damage and pollution” to indigenous territories.

“These new neighbors, the multinationals, have located their battles in our territories, and they have put us in a position where we have to defend ourselves.”

One of the Peruvian cases he brought before the commission was that of 29 indigenous activists who, after requesting a dialogue with mining company and government representatives who came to their territory without their consultation, were seized, held hostage and then tortured by the Peruvian National Police for three days in July of 2005.

For the most part, his presentation focused on more recent events.

“It is now known,” Palacin Quispe stated, “that 18 Colombian ethnicities are in danger of extinction and for them we mobilize, for them we protest and there is no mechanism for dealing with this. . we have become the objects of assassination, torture and imprisonment.”

“In many areas, they are preventing us from our constitutional right to mobilize and protest; and the strategy of the state is now to change laws. . so they criminalize dissidence, and in Chile, against the Mapuche, they use the anti-terrorist law. They also seek to privatize public land and along with this they are increasing the military presence in our territories.”

For Juan Edgardo Pai, an Awa leader from Colombia and one of the presenters at the hearing, the issue of militarization is very important.

“The militarization of our territory has brought terrible problems,” Pai stated in a phone interview with Indian Country Today after his testimony at the commission. He referred to the recent massacre of 27 Awa by the FARC and to other similar situations. “When there are armed conflicts there are many people displaced and many Awa have been killed by their anti-personnel mines.

“Our people are still trapped by some of those mines. The fumigations have also caused death; many of our children have been killed by the poisoning.”

Pai said the Colombian government has done nothing to help the displaced and suffering members of his community. He pointed to the recent effort to find some of the victims of the latest massacre as an example of Awa frustration with the government.

“I came here not only because of the massacre,” Pai recounted, “but for the politics of [Colombian President] Uribe who doesn’t respond to our needs and we have seen so many violations of our rights. . we told them about the paramilitaries threatening us also and they have done nothing.

“We have been forgotten by the Colombian government.”

While testimony at the hearings was tragic, there were some positive results to the visit, according to ILRC attorney Leonardo Crippa. He asserted that IACHR Commissioner Victor Abramovich, special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, was “quite interested in following up on the testimony. … and for a visit by him to Colombia along with the UN Special Rapporteur.”

“Another request we felt would get follow up was on our request for the commission to do a comparative analysis of the 11 Peruvian decrees adopted by the Peruvian government in 2007, known as the Forest Laws, with the American Convention on Human Rights to determine if this domestic legislation is in accordance with the international standards concerning human rights.”

Crippa pointed out that these same laws are being used to imprison indigenous activists who have lead protests in Peru and that issue, along with one of the situations in Colombia, are reasons that there should be a separate American Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.

“This regional declaration is needed to reflect the regional particularities of the region, especially those ones that were not reflected in the UN Declaration.”

In his meeting with Department of State officials, Palacin Quispe addressed the same theme.

“In that meeting we stated that if it’s true that the Obama administration signifies a change in U.S. policy, their relevant officials should participate in the next OAS discussion of the Project on the American Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to unblock the process so that this international instrument be finally adopted,” he wrote in a CAOI statement.

In a statement summarizing the hearings, the IACHR urged passage of the American Declaration, as well as decrying the situations that compelled the indigenous leaders to leave their own countries to seek justice.

“The IACHR condemns the murders of indigenous people carried out by private and state agents, and reiterates its concern over the frequency of social conflicts and acts of violence associated with disputes over the lands, territories and natural resources of indigenous peoples. These situations of conflict normally arise because the states do not adequately guarantee the protection of indigenous territories; nor do they guarantee indigenous peoples the right to participate in decisions concerning the activities that affect their rights.”

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