What Happened to Indigenous Rights? An Access to Justice Dialogue


ABA ROLI Staff at the 17th session of  U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on April 23, 2018.

By Hillary Voth
Program Associate, Latin America and the Caribbean

Despite cultural differences — according to U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) — in more than 70 countries around the world, 370 million indigenous people are facing a similar issue: a lack of protection of their basic human rights. History continues to repeat itself when those who migrate impinge on what was once the home of the communities that were there long before the new arrivals.

In recent years, UNPFII has developed a mandate to address indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health, and human rights. This year, the UNPFII session focused on indigenous peoples’ collective rights to land, resources, and territories.

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) is supporting communities and indigenous people to help increase their capacity to assert social and environment-related rights through government information requests, strategic litigation, legislative advocacy, and multi-stakeholder engagement with government as well as companies. In Latin America, legal gains have increased due to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights jurisprudence, the recognition of indigenous people’s legal systems in some countries’ constitutions such as Ecuador and Bolivia, and the adoption of specific legislation regarding free, prior, and informed consent such as in Peru. However, the major challenge in the region is the implementation and enforcement of these laws and regional and international human rights standards.

On April 23, ABA ROLI organized an interactive dialogue for UNPFII on access to justice and the right to participation for indigenous peoples. Indigenous representatives from Peru and Bolivia, as well as individuals working with indigenous people in Algeria, Colombia, New Zealand, and the U.S., provided input on the needs of their communities. In Peru, for example, it was noted that there is limited to no access to legal aid for indigenous people. The problem is further complicated by a lack of interpreters or public officials who speak an indigenous language.

During the event, ABA ROLI explored how our Access to Justice tool could help indigenous peoples organizations and communities in the Amazon region understand their legal rights and means of enforcement, gain consensus on their priorities, and push forward for much-needed reform in their countries on a wide range of issues. Participants analyzed how the evidence-based participatory methodology could be used to address these needs and to facilitate indigenous peoples in defending their right to free, prior and informed consent. in their own countries, before their governments, as well as before international mechanisms.

“Through our work crossing several continents, ABA ROLI has seen indigenous communities and rural communities face many threats from development and resource exploitation, including forced displacement, environmental pollution, and loss of livelihoods,” said Jay Monteverde, ABA ROLI’s Global Environmental Programming Director. “The law can be a critical means for these communities to uphold their rights and protect themselves, even in difficult political circumstances. But the first step is to understand the exact circumstances in which communities stand, including available legal avenues and relief.”

Beginning to only scratch the surface of the issues involved, further conversations and collaboration between indigenous peoples’ organizations and others in the Amazon region must continue, with the goal of increasing respect for existing laws on the part of governments and the private sector, as well as empowering indigenous communities to fight for their rights.

For more information on ABA Rule of Law Initiative’s work in Latin America and the Caribbean, please email rol@americanbar.org.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABA ROLI.

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