Indigenous Rights Denied

AP photo/Joe Cavaretta Mexican Zapatista rebels are showered with rose petals as they arrive to the Nativitas forest in Xochimilco, Mexico, on the southern edge of Mexico City, Friday September 12, 1997.

Indigenous Rights Denied

One of the critical questions of relations between Indigenous Peoples and nation states is whether nation states will recognize and uphold indigenous rights. Current international law, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), relies upon nation states to make agreements with Indigenous Peoples and implement the spirit and human rights provisions of the Declaration. Nation states do not have many checks and balances about carrying out international understandings and agreements. The UNDRIP was an agreement made among U.N. diplomats and nation states, and in many ways does not recognize indigenous rights, but rather collective rights of citizens within nation states.

Indigenous peoples, within the Declaration, have the same rights as other citizens, but no recognition as political entities with indigenous organization and rights to veto land and resource extractions. The right to protect land, self-government, cultural autonomy are fundamental indigenous rights, that have existed among indigenous nations from time immemorial. Indigenous Peoples continue to struggle for the protection and implementation of their indigenous rights, while often accepting the rights and obligations of citizens of nation states. Indigenous rights and citizens or civil rights are not the same. In general, few nation states recognize or protect indigenous rights, but strive to protect civil citizens rights.

An illustration of the differences between indigenous and citizen rights can be seen in the Mexican government’s refusal to recognize indigenous rights in Chiapas. On February 16, 1996, the Mexican government signed the San Andrés Accords outlining indigenous rights in Mexico. The accords, written by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), reclaimed rights to political recognition and participation in nation state budget and political decision-making, preservation of natural resources within indigenous territories, respect for the diversity of Indigenous Peoples, the right of indigenous communities to participate in economic development plans affecting them, and control over their own judicial institutions and policies.

Indigenous Peoples in Mexico were given the opportunity to review and approve the accords, and most approved. The Mexican federal government was expected to continue negotiating with the EZLN and address problems of poverty, develop strategies of economic development and indigenous women’s rights. However, the Mexican government stopped negotiating and introduced Army troops into Chiapas and declined to honor the provisions of the accords.

The Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas insisted that the Mexican government fulfill the obligations of the accords, including release of political prisoners and recognition of indigenous justice jurisdictions. The government declined and offered a counter proposal that denied recognition of indigenous judicial powers or jurisdictions, denied Indigenous Peoples their rights to territory and management of natural resources, and insisted on dictating the rules of election for indigenous communities. The national government passed a law in 2001 that granted state governments the power to recognize the autonomous political powers of indigenous communities, but would not embed political recognition of indigenous governments in the Mexican Constitution.

Hundreds of complaints from indigenous communities focus on the Mexican government’s unwillingness to legally recognize indigenous political governments and institutions, and to protect and allow indigenous management of natural resources on indigenous territories. Without political recognition, control over justice agencies, and control over land and natural resources, indigenous Mexicans are left to the demands of the administrative government. The Mexican government has and continues to deny indigenous rights of self-government, territory, and respect for indigenous cultural diversity. The Mexican government’s signing of the Declaration, however, at least until now, has not enticed the Mexican government to help develop and recognize the inherent political powers and land rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Mexican experience does not foster confidence that other governments will recognize, and support indigenous governments and economies. Indigenous Peoples in many countries of the world are offered citizenship and human rights, but not indigenous rights. In the United States, citizenship without recognition of indigenous rights was called termination.

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