Concern for the human rights of indigenous peoples and their members has been a constant feature in the work of the Commission, as shown by the documents included in this compilation. Soon after it began its activities, in 1972, the Commission declared that it was “a sacred obligation of the states to protect the indigenous peoples of their territories.” That concern gained wide visibility as of several cases in the 1980s, in particular the decision, in 1985, that led the Commission to ask the Government of Brazil to adopt a series of measures on behalf of the Yanomami people, including the demarcation of their lands.
As of 1989, when the Commission began the process of preparing an American declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples--which entailed extensive consultations and meetings throughout the hemisphere--there has been increased interest on the part of the indigenous peoples to use the mechanisms of the inter-American human rights system to pursue claims and defend their rights. The growing number of petitions received in this vein reflect this trend. The States have also expressed greater interest in and sensitivity towards those issues, evidenced in several friendly settlement agreements entered into and now being negotiated.
Since then, the successive rapporteurs, Patrick Lipton Robinson (1991-1995) and Carlos Ayala Corao (1996-1999), have maintained the commitment to the human rights of indigenous persons and peoples and have given direction to and helped strengthen the work of the Commission in this thematic area.
In March 2000, the Commission designated us as the rapporteurs for this thematic area, and we have assumed that responsibility, aware of the importance of and ready to work to address the situation of those peoples, numbering more than 40 million persons in the Americas, who generally, in addition to having been historically dispossessed, today have the lowest levels of services, income, and access to opportunities in their countries. Many continue to suffer discrimination.
The appointment of these Rapporteurs coincides with the approval to begin the activities of the “Project for Strengthening the Inter-American System for the Protection of Human Rights of the Communities, ethnic minorities, and other vulnerable groups affected by the conflicts in Central America,” which, based on international cooperation from Denmark, will enable the IACHR to accelerate and deepen its examination of the petitions and cases. In addition to strengthening its technical personnel at the General Secretariat, the project facilitates research in the countries concerning cases being processed, covers the costs for witnesses and expert witnesses to travel to hearings before the Commission or Court, as well as the dissemination of the Commission’s doctrine and case-law on this issue through printed and electronic publications.
The indigenous peoples are facing difficult situations today. The physical expansion of national economies and infrastructure works into the territories that have remained as indigenous habitats, together with cultural inter-penetration through social, political, and physical borders, has severely disrupted the indigenous communities that subsisted in difficult circumstances. Furthermore, the increase in the organizational and claimsmaking capacity of the indigenous peoples, the general interest in preserving the environment, which largely coincides with the indigenous habitat, and the greater national and international visibility of the wealth of their cultures and of the challenges they face provide a platform and new reasons and incentives for reinforcing their claims.
The IACHR, on its own, and through the contributions of its special rapporteur, will continue to administer the inter-American legal instruments in defense of and to promote the human rights of the indigenous peoples and their members. It will do so, first of all, to uphold the legitimacy of those rights and in view of the vulnerability of those communities, but also because it considers that recognizing and taking advantage of the multicultural nature of our nations is one of the obligations of any democracy, and a requirement for the effective observance of human rights for all.
May 31, 2000
Julio Prado Vallejo
Co-Special Rapporteurs on Indigenous Rights.