At the Inter-American Commission Human Rights…

I’m spending this week in Washington, DC, attending sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I’m here as a researcher on socio-environmental conflicts and a teacher; six of my students in a Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples class are here with me to see how the human rights they are learning about are claimed in practice. The Inter-American human rights system, which includes the Commission and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, has become a critical node in the mesh of institutions that are transforming indigenous rights from a general aspiration to a formal international norm.

International law institutions are viewed by most United States citizens with well-earned skepticism. The US government has played an ironic role in helping to structure such institutions, but then refusing to acknowledge any outside legal commitment or monitoring structure as having authority over its actions. US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick famously called social and cultural rights “a letter to Santa Claus” and Senate ratifications of major human rights treaties have included statements insisting they may not be invoked in civil litigation. Outside the superpower, however, these institutions tend to be regarded with greater respect and states dutifully send senior officials to be questioned and directed by members of the Inter-American Commission. On Friday, for example, Commissioner Macaulay insisted that a Minister from Panama not leave the room without first scheduling the next meeting with a community who brought its land claims case before the IACHR.

Indigenous Rights at UN:OAS.002Both the Commission and the Court are bodies of the Organization of American States, the regional association of Western Hemisphere countries founded in 1948 in response to the Roosevelt Administration’s call for a “League of Nations of the Americas.” US leadership initially positioned the OAS as anti-communist and drove Cuba’s suspension from the organization from 1962 to 2009. The Commission began in 1959 and the Court opened in 1979. While the softer of the two institutions, the Commission has the power to impose binding “precautionary measures,” ordering states to protect vulnerable individuals or avoid taking irreversible actions. The Commission also acts as an investigative arm of the system and makes recommendations to states, and sends cases to the Court for adjudication when the states don’t comply. The Court acts as a kind of continental Supreme Court overseeing the human rights of people in twenty-four countries that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights (those countries indicated by all colors except purple and gray in this map).

My students have been reading Richard Price’s Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial, a detailed ethnographic account of the how the Saramaka people brought their rights claims before the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court in a landmark case. The Court’s eventual decision in Saramaka v. Suriname concluded (1) Afro-descendant peoples in the Americas living traditionally and distinctly from national societies have the same rights as indigenous peoples; (2) Both kinds of traditional peoples have rights to property in their traditional territories, and the resources they have traditionally used; (3) projects that seize this property or threaten the physical or cultural survival of traditional peoples can only be carried forward with their free, prior, and informed consent.

Four years ago, I attended the session on the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory at the Commission. You can read my report on that hearing here. More recently, in December 2016, three Sioux peoples brought the issue of the Dakota Access Pipeline to the IACHR. The hearing is archived as an online video (en and es, according the language of the speaker), just as all hearings this week are available from the Commission.

Bringing the Fight over Bolivia’s TIPNIS Road to Washington, DC

Bolivian indigenous leaders denounce human rights violations in Isiboro-Sécure case in Washington

(This blog post also appears at Amazon Watch’s Eye on the Amazon blog.)

Subcentral TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas Mosua and Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), addressed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on Friday, March 15. The hour-long hearing was the culmination of a weeklong trip aimed at putting the Isiboro Sécure situation on the hemispheric human rights agenda. The visit came in the third year of high-profile campaign to prevent the Bolivian government from building a highway through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS; past coverage).

Since their march to La Paz in 2011, residents of TIPNIS have experienced restricted freedom of movement. Military detachments, variously labeled an “environmental brigade,” an anti-narcotics measure, and part of “integrating the territory under state control,” restrict access and have hampered the activities of external organizations. Boat fuel, the essential ingredient of mobility on the rivers, has been tightly regulated as a “narcotics precursor.” Meanwhile the Bolivian government backed its own parallel leadership for CIDOB and assisted in evicting Adolfo Chávez and the rest of its elected officers from their headquarters in Santa Cruz. Domestic and Amazon Basin-wide indigenous organizations continue to recognize his leadership.

At the headquarters of the Organization of American States, the indigenous representatives offered a wide-ranging presentation concerning all of the events since the inauguration of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway project. Adolfo Chávez introduced his compatriot and to ask that indigenous and individual rights be protected by the IACHR. Fernando Vargas described the territory and the project and presented the struggle of his people as a defense of the territory, of their rights, and the natural environment. “We cannot be accomplices,” he said, “to the destruction of the environment and global warming.”

The leaders called the IACHR’s attention to a series of violations of the collective and individual rights of the sixty-four indigenous communities. Their community structures, including local traditional leaders called corregidores and the territorial organization Subcentral TIPNIS, have been bypassed by the government as decisions are made about the route for a Cochabamba-Beni highway. Police officers and military troops attacked and imprisoned hundreds of members of a pro-TIPNIS indigenous march on September 25, 2011. Despite formal complaints and the presentation of forensic reports on injuries to seventy protesters, the official investigation into abuses that day remains stalled.

At the conclusion of the 2011 march, the government capitulated and passed Law 180, designed to permanently protect the territory as an “intangible zone.” However, a December 2011 agreement between the government and the indigenous communities to implement the law was never put into effect. Instead, the government has unilaterally declared that “intangibility” means that nearly all economic activities – including eco-tourism, sustainable nut and cacao harvesting, and other projects previously approved – must be suspended until the communities accept the construction of the highway.

In 2012, the Bolivian government approved a Law 222 allowing for a community consultation on the future of the territory. However, the terms of this consultation were never coordinated with the local indigenous organization, despite an order from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal that the consultation would only be legal if agreed to. The government’s consultation went ahead despite multiple institutions complaining that it failed to meet the most basic of international standards. The “consultation” was accompanied by the public bestowing of gifts and development assistance that were explicitly conditioned on acceptance of the highway. Late last year, a joint survey team led by the Catholic Church and the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, found that the consultation was neither free, nor informed, nor prior – the essential conditions of its legitimacy.

Fernando Vargas sought the Commission’s presence to clarify the facts, its intervention to maintain in force Law 180, and its determination that the Bolivian government’s obligations to protect the TIPNIS indigenous’ collective rights have not been met.

The Bolivian government brought a sizable delegation to the Commission, led by Minister of Government Carlos Romero. For its part, the Bolivian government’s presentation reviewed another version of the TIPNIS story that focused on who should represent the interests of the indigenous community. Most of its allotted time was given to pro-government indigenous leaders, Melva Hurtado, Pedro Vare, Carlos Fabricano, and Gumercindo Pradel. Respectively, they come from the parallel CIDOB leadership elected while the 2012 indigenous march was still in La Paz, a Beni indigenous organization, and communities on the Sécure River and in the colonized zone of TIPNIS who are affiliated with the coca grower’s movement. . The strategy of the government had two sides: bringing these allies to speak on one hand, and on the other hand treating their demands as totally independent of its campaign to promote the highway. In response, Adolfo Chávez offered another point of view by saying that these figure’s presence was the best illustration of the division among indigenous communities created by the government, and of the lack of respect it has for indigenous people’s own processes of self-government.

In his presentation, Minister Romero denied that any highway project yet exists in TIPNIS, continuing to claim that Segment Two of the highway is entirely independent of Segments One and Three. With the annulling of the government’s contract with the Brazilian construction firm OAS, he said, the project which had begun is now “merely a possible road” in the future. Therefore, he claimed, the 2012 consultation is now a “prior consultation” as required by international standards. He said the current government is more indigenous than any previous one, describing the representation of indigenous people in the national executive and legislature and the titling of Native Community Lands like TIPNIS.

With a session of just one hour, and the lengthy presentation by the government (finally cut short by the Commission), little time remained for questions from the dais. But two members of the commission offered some. What was the form of environmental impact statement generated before the consultation process? What were the norms that regulated that consultation? What was the specific evaluation offered by the indigenous of the likely environmental and social impact of a highway?

The Bolivian indigenous leaders brought with them abundant documentation ranging from their legal title to the territory to detailed community-by-community documentation of the flawed consultation process of the government. They extended an invitation to the Commission to visit the territory and to take a stand on the legality of government actions over the past two years. A full response from the Commission is expected in the months to come.

During their trip, the indigenous leaders also aired their concerns with the American Bar Association,  American diplomatic officials, legislators in the House and Senate Human Rights caucuses, and Georgetown Law School.