office of the Summit Follow-up - OAS



Washington, D.C., February 18, 2000


My name is Armstrong Wiggins. I am the coordinator of the Central and South American Program of the Indian Law Resource Center. We thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.

We have been deeply involved in previous Summits, beginning with the 1994 Summit in Miami. After a very difficult fight, the organizers of the Miami Summit finally agreed to put the contentious issue of indigenous rights on the agenda. We are pleased that the debate about facing or not facing this important issue is over, and that indigenous rights will be featured in the 2001 Quebec Summit.

We should begin by reminding ourselves that we are talking about the rights of some 40 million indigenous people in the Americas who generally rank at the bottom of every scale of economic and social well-being. In most of the Americas, indigenous people are the poorest of the poor, the least secure in their homelands, and the most victimized by racial discrimination.

Indigenous leaders have yet to be given their rightful place at the tables of government where many decisions about the future of indigenous peoples are made. Seeking redress and a better future for their people, indigenous representatives have only recently begun to gain access to many governmental institutions, including the Organization of American States. We commend the organizers of this meeting for helping crack open the door a bit further by inviting indigenous input in preparation for the Quebec Summit.

My comments will be brief, and they will be about the rights of indigenous peoples, not about "Indigenous Populations," the official title that has been used for this agenda item. For many important reasons, we should affirm the fact that this dialogue is about indigenous peoples, nations, and tribes, with rightful self-governing authority over people, land and resources. We are not just a minority ethnic group. Fortunately, international law and many national laws are now recognizing this fact. For example, the Proposed American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes an section on the right of indigenous self-government.

I will address only a few of the many issues that will need to be considered in preparation for the Summit.

We Must Not Segregate The Indigenous Rights Issue.

Indigenous rights deserves the focused attention of a separate agenda item, but it must not be segregated from the larger Summit agenda. The four other framework issues are of critical, urgent importance to indigenous peoples, because they too involve indigenous rights that are still denied.

(1) Democracy and Human Rights. Former Vice-President Victor Hugo Cardenas of Bolivia has spoken eloquently of the need to affirm and reconcile two democratic traditions in the Americas, one originating in Europe and the other deeply rooted right here in the cultures and governments of indigenous peoples. For many generations, indigenous peoples have been subjected to undemocratic governance and have suffered disproportionately from human rights abuses. Our challenge is to create new relationships between the dominant societies and indigenous peoples that will respect and guarantee democratic principles.

To guarantee that the human rights of indigenous peoples are protected, we must take every opportunity to strengthen international and domestic legal standards. That is why it is so important that the Quebec Summit reiterate its support for the development of a strong American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Recognizing the need for an American Declaration that will be at least as strong as the draft United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights, the Summit should declare that the OAS standard-setting process on indigenous rights shall proceed in full harmony with the UN process.

(2) Property Registration. At the top of the lists of most indigenous peoples' grievances is the denial of their property rights. This includes indigenous land and resource rights as well as intellectual property rights. Many governments in the Americas still define indigenous lands as public lands, and they freely make destructive concessions of indigenous natural resources without indigenous consent. The Summit is an occasion for governments to resolve that all indigenous lands will be demarcated and made secure through the law, whether those lands are held individually or communally. And indigenous peoples must be legally protected against the exploitation of their resources and intellectual property.

(3) Migrant Workers. Indigenous people are a large part of migrant worker populations in many areas, because of the hardships and lack of opportunities that they often face at home. When talking about the problems of migrant workers and refugees, the Summit should not only address their day-to-day problems, but should also examine and take steps to eliminate the root causes of their displacement from their homelands and families.

(4) Strengthening Financial Markets. This Summit agenda item must not be held captive by the business community. Indigenous peoples and all others who are being dramatically affected by the globalization of finance and trade -- whether for better or for worse -- must be fully heard in this discussion.

The Working Group On The Proposed American Declaration On The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples Must Be Given A Clear Mandate To Continue And Strengthen Its Work.

In 1999, there were two precedent-setting meetings on indigenous rights in the OAS. The first of these meetings, in February, was initially billed as a meeting of "government experts" to discuss the proposed American Declaration. Fortunately, it developed into a meeting where both government and indigenous experts finally began a long-overdue, face-to-face dialogue about indigenous rights in this hemisphere. There is no OAS activity that is more important than continuing and deepening this work to strengthen the international law of indigenous rights. Even in its draft form, the proposed American Declaration has been cited as a persuasive legal authority, has helped guide the policies of the multilateral banks, and has encouraged law reform at the national level. The Quebec Summit should clarify that Ambassador Heller of Mexico, the President of the Working Group, and the others who are leading this vital law reform effort should no longer be forced to beg for the funds and other resources that the Working Group needs for its continuation and strengthening.

Full And Fair Indigenous Participation Must Be Guaranteed.

We are encouraged by the reports that we have been receiving about plans for participation of indigenous representatives in the Quebec Summit process. As already noted, we are also encouraged by the decisions of the Political and Juridical Committee and of the General Assembly to invite indigenous representatives to participate in the Working Group on the Proposed American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Summit should welcome this progress and reaffirm the 1999 resolution of the General Assembly that mandates participation of indigenous representatives in the Working Group. That 1999 resolution spoke of the need for "adequate participation" of indigenous representatives, and this has led the way to unprecedented but not yet completely satisfactory involvement by indigenous representatives. We respectfully suggest that the Quebec Summit should mandate full and fair indigenous participation. The Summit should acknowledge the unique status and needs of indigenous peoples and should take this opportunity to affirm the equality of indigenous peoples.

Finally, we commend the progress that is being made in opening the OAS to broader democratic participation by all civil society organizations (CSOs). We must ensure, however, that the developing CSO accreditation system is not used to unduly restrict indigenous participation or to roll back the recent progress that indigenous representatives have made in the Working Group. Although there are civil society indigenous right groups, such as our Center, that are organized and funded like other non-governmental organizations, most indigenous representatives also have governmental responsibilities and do not fit neatly into the CSO category. Again, we are talking about indigenous peoples, nations and tribes with rights of self-government. Rules for participation in the Summit and in the OAS in general should be sufficiently open and flexible to encourage and deepen indigenous involvement in the intergovernmental affairs of the Americas.

Thank you.

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