Statement of the Indigenous Peoples and Nations Coalition to the Organization of American States’ 47th General Assembly

June 19, 2017
Jaime Arias
Organization of American States
Cancun, MEXICO

Secretary General Luis Almagro, Ambassadors and Distinguished Guests of the Organization of American States:

My name is Jaime Arias and I am a Kankuamo from Colombia, representing the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC). I thank you for this opportunity to contribute to this interactive dialogue on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. I am grateful for the opportunity to take the floor this morning/afternoon. I am speaking on behalf of the Indigenous Peoples and Nations Thematic Coalition, and though Indigenous Peoples’ governments are authorized to represent the interests of our own people, we are required by the Organization of American States (OAS) to address you today with just one voice, so my comments reflect the concerns of this broad coalition of Indigenous Peoples and Nations.

Today, our coalition would like to address a very important matter: the need for the Organization and its member states to fulfill its commitments in a new groundbreaking human rights instrument: the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly on June 15, 2016. That date marked almost 30 years of concerted effort, hard work, and complex negotiations between Indigenous Peoples and member states. Because of this collaboration, the Declaration is an effective and relevant instrument that strengthens existing international law on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Yet, collaboration with Indigenous Peoples was not always practiced. In the beginning, the OAS Member States refused to allow Indigenous Peoples to participate in the negotiation process. Thanks to the perseverance of Indigenous leaders and support from Antigua and Barbuda, Canada, and the United States, we, in the words of the Canadian Ambassador at the time, “kicked the OAS’ door open.” We not only managed to secure our seat at the table and our right to negotiate face to face with Member States, we were able to open a space for civil society and non-governmental organizations to participate at the OAS.
We share this story because it shows that Indigenous contributions to the OAS produce stronger and more useful results like the American Declaration. The Declaration represents the acknowledgment by the countries of our region of our permanent existence as Indigenous Peoples of the Americas with the right to self-govern, to 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. However, we all know that 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 desecrated by extractive industry companies; and Indigenous leaders are threatened, assaulted, and even murdered for their work protecting Indigenous lands and resources. In March, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported that there have been 14 murders of human rights defenders in 2017 alone; nearly half were Indigenous leaders. This is unacceptable.

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 until member states seriously commit to working with Indigenous Peoples to breathe life into its text. To address this, we propose that a mechanism be established within the OAS, that is capable of responding to 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 finally bring permanent and critical improvements to the lives of Indigenous Peoples.

While establishing functional mechanisms or bodies to monitor and ensure implementation of the Declaration is a critical step forward, it is also imperative to establish the necessary ways and means to regularize the permanent participation of Indigenous Peoples within the OAS, through their representative decision-making institutions. Indigenous Peoples are entirely distinct from civil society. We are not interest groups organized to address particular sectoral concerns. We are political and legal entities and have the right to self-government; our institutions must therefore have a distinct and permanent voice in the international community, including at the OAS. This crucial work is already happening at the United Nations and there are important lessons to be learned from that process. We hope the OAS will seek to do the same, to ensure Indigenous voices are present at the OAS. With a formal seat at the table, Indigenous Peoples would be able 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. Indigenous Peoples and nations have much to share and contribute, and it is absolutely vital that their voices continue to be heard and consulted throughout the Organization. To realize their rights in the Declaration, Indigenous Peoples’ governance institutions must be able to participate fully and effectively at the Organization.
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 guidance for interpretation of other regional instruments, such as the American Convention on Human Rights and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. A good starting point for this work would be to request the organs of the Inter-American System to present an annual dedicated report to the General Assembly regarding the progress and outcomes of cases and precautionary measures related to the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Similarly, the OAS General Assembly, through its Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs or Permanent Council, could include as a standing agenda item the implementation of the American Declaration to discuss its ramifications among member states and consult with Indigenous Peoples. Additionally, we call upon the member states of the OAS to hold a special high-level conference to consult with Indigenous Peoples and member states how best to implement and achieve the objectives of the American Declaration.
We are aware of the proposal for a Plan of Action of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and we hope that our comments will be taken into consideration as this Plan is finalized and implemented. We also call upon those countries who have not yet fully embraced and supported the American Declaration to do so immediately. Indigenous Peoples cannot wait any longer for recognition and promotion of their rights. We believe that decisive actions must be made together to achieve the goals of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Thank you.