Strategies for implementing the new American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

March 2, 2017 | Washington, DC 

The following is a statement presented by Armstrong Wiggins on behalf of the Indian Law Resource Center to the Organization of American States' Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs on follow-up of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Madam Chair, Ambassadors, Distinguished Guests of the Organization of American States:

My name is Armstrong Wiggins; I am a Miskito Indian from the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, and the Director of the Washington, DC Office of the Indian Law Resource Center. I thank you for this opportunity to contribute to the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs’ discussion on the follow-up of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I am speaking today at the invitation of the Chair of the Committee, the Mission of Canada, and I am grateful for this opportunity.

I wish that elected indigenous leaders from the Western Hemisphere were able to address you instead of me today. Due to short notice, they were not able to be here today, but I encourage you to consult with them as we continue to move forward with this work.  

For our part, the Indian Law Resource Center has 40 years of expertise in the area of indigenous peoples’ rights. The Center is a non-profit law and advocacy organization founded and directed by American Indians in 1978 that provides legal assistance without charge to Indian Nations working to protect their lands, resources, human rights, environment, and cultural heritage. A hallmark of our work has been our work to help establish international and regional human rights standards, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the OAS American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

During my lifetime, I have seen important victories to advance the rights of indigenous peoples. Adoption of the American Declaration took nearly 30 years to achieve and indigenous leaders celebrated when it was adopted on June 15, 2016. I wish to take this opportunity to especially thank those countries that led the long and arduous, and sometimes seemingly endless, negotiation and adoption process. All good things take time and careful attention.

For us, the Declaration represents the acknowledgment of the permanent existence of indigenous peoples in the Americas. We are no longer a curiosity but are recognized by all member states as peoples with the right to self-govern, self-determine, and to secure the wellness, safety, and future of our people. The Declaration indicates the good faith of countries to assure our rights in practice. Since its adoption, we have shared the final text of the Declaration with our brothers and sisters throughout the region and we plan to hold workshops and provide resources to assist tribes and indigenous communities to use the Declaration and advance their rights.

In spite of this important progress in the Americas, much work remains. Indigenous peoples throughout the region remain the poorest of the poor; violence against indigenous women is at epidemic levels; indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation are forced into contact with the outside world; indigenous peoples under states’ internal armed conflicts continue to suffer; sacred sites are turned over to extractive industry companies; and indigenous leaders are threatened, assaulted, and even murdered for their work protecting indigenous lands and resources. And even when a legal victory is achieved, its impact can be limited; because our rights are not always guaranteed when the rule of law does not exist for indigenous peoples.

When indigenous peoples are deprived of their basic human rights, their ways of life, their ceremonial and spiritual practices, their lands, territories, and resources, they suffer and many have disappeared completely. So far in 2017, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has reported that there have been 14 murders of human rights defenders; nearly half were indigenous leaders. This is unacceptable. Such grave loss of life results from the lack of human rights protections, monitoring of rights violations, and implementation of instruments like the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

While there are many problems that remain in the region, we have a unique opportunity before us. The Declaration can and should ensure the permanent existence of indigenous peoples and prevent the further extinction of our languages, cultures, and lives. But we recognize that the Declaration is only as good as the paper it is written on unless we can secure serious commitments by member states and indigenous peoples to work together and breathe life into its text. To address this, we propose a mechanism be established within the OAS, that is capable of responding to major problems or issues concerning indigenous lands and resources, protection of the environment, and the well-being and self-governance of indigenous peoples, including the health and safety of indigenous women and children. Such a body will best assure that the Declaration will be effective and at last bring permanent and critical improvements to the lives of indigenous peoples.

Just as important as establishing functional mechanisms or bodies to monitor and ensure implementation of the Declaration is establishing the necessary ways and means to regularize the permanent participation of indigenous peoples through their decision-making institutions (governments). This crucial work is happening now at the United Nations and there are important lessons to be learned from those discussions. We hope the OAS will seek to do the same, to ensure indigenous voices are present at the OAS to assert and defend their rights, and to contribute to good global governance, sustainable development, and regional challenges like conservation of biological diversity and violence against indigenous women and children.

Now is the time for cohesive action by the organs of the Inter-American human rights system to uphold the rights of indigenous peoples. In our opinion, both the Commission and the Court should interpret the Declaration to provide content to other regional instruments, such as the American Convention on Human Rights and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. No other regional instrument recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to collectively hold their lands, territories and resources, and to determine their own governing institutions. A good starting point for this work would be to request the organs of the Inter-American System to report annually to the General Assembly on its processing of cases and precautionary measures related to the rights of indigenous peoples.

Similarly, the OAS General Assembly, through this Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs, could include as a standing agenda item the implementation of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to discuss it among member states and consult with indigenous peoples. Additionally, I call upon the member states of the OAS to hold a special conference to consult with indigenous peoples and member states how best to implement the American Declaration.

We believe that decisive actions have to be made to ensure the purposes of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are achieved. I look forward to discussing further how we can work toward achieving the objectives of the Declaration together.

Thank you.