Media Center



August 18, 2003 - Toronto, Canada

(video format)

I would like to begin by thanking the Institute for Leadership Development and the Government of Canada for inviting me to share these remarks with you at the World Summit of Indigenous Entrepreneurs. I understand, as well, that there is a significant representation from my own country Colombia at your conference. Un saludo especial para ellos.

Regretfully, I am not able to attend in person, and hope that through this video, I am able to communicate the importance of these topics for our work at the OAS and in the Americas.

The Organization of American States has been doing important work on issues that affect indigenous communities in the Americas and for that reason I am particularly pleased to be able to share some of these thoughts with you. As entrepreneurs you must all be aware of the need for having a solid legal basis that allows you to freely create and promote businesses in an environment of equal rights and opportunities.

The central theme of our work at the OAS has undoubtedly been the formal consideration by our member states of the proposed American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Through this ongoing work, a multilateral approach has managed to set out, in a legal framework, general principles and social and individual rights for indigenous peoples in harmony with universal standards of human rights. It has also created a significant process of consultations between states and representatives of indigenous communities from the Americas that we hope has built bridges that will far outlast the negotiation of the document itself. As early as February of this year, the OAS held a joint working group which was the latest installment in a story worth telling.

In March of 1997, our Inter-American Human Rights Commission submitted for consideration of the Member States a draft Declaration from which the actual text of the negotiation process was launched. The OAS responded by forming the working group to undertake the negotiations. At the April 2001 session the need for direct participation of representatives from indigenous communities from all over the Americas, as well as NGOs and representatives of other international organizations, became clear.

In fact, with the 78 representatives of indigenous groups in that session, the critical need for their input became an imperative of our work, as a means to strengthen the relevance and legitimacy of the eventual text. In 2002, we held working sessions in March and November, in which specific articles and language within the text were discussed. The November session was among the most important, as it dealt with the complicated problem of land, territory and natural resources.

The formal course of consultation and the eventual goal of a formal Declaration has its roots in the Summit of the Americas process. Both at the Miami Summit of 1994 and Santiago Summit of 1998, the heads of States and Governments gave their support to the idea of an inter-American Declaration and expressed their concern for the quality of life enjoyed by indigenous communities. This was further fostered by the Québec Summit of 2001 which specifically mandated a prompt conclusion to the negotiations on the Declaration, and clearly set out the need to mark this process with strict participation and consultations with indigenous communities.

The most recent statement of the member states on this issue came at this year’s OAS General Assembly, in which the assembled Foreign Ministers agreed to a significant resolution on the American Declaration, reaffirming the priority for the OAS of “the adoption of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, underscoring the importance of participation by indigenous peoples in the process of elaboration of the Draft Declaration.” This statement renewed the mandate of the working group to begin the final phase of negotiations on the Draft Declaration with a first round to begin in October of this year. This first round will consider proposals by member states, representatives of indigenous peoples, specialized agencies, and other entities.

Obviously we are not working in a juridical vacuum on this issue. As most of you know, there exists a proposal for a similar Declaration within the UN context. Also, ILO Convention 169 has loomed large in our work. But I think I can safely say that we have all learned much since the approval of ILO 169 in 1989 – and our negotiations have reflected this. The OAS Draft Declaration goes farther than the ILO on issues such as self-determination, education, and the nature and reach of property rights, among others. As such, it is likely that our regional negotiations will resonate positively on similar negotiations occurring on the world scale.

Beyond our significant work on the declaration, it is important that you know that our Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Inter-American Court of Human Rights continue to fight for the rights of indigenous communities. Since 1990, the IACHR has had a special Rapporteuer of Indigenous Rights. The number and sophistication of cases within our system on issues that deal with these rights have increased dramatically – such as political rights, self-determination, and even intellectual property as it relates to indigenous issues, as well as ancestral property rights. I am sure that many of you business people are quite aware of these last issues, as intellectual and ancestral property rights are to your benefit.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter, the most recent and complete expression of the will of the nations of the Americas regarding democracy, states unequivocally that “the elimination of all forms of discrimination, especially gender, ethnic and race discrimination, as well as diverse forms of intolerance, the promotion and protection of human rights of indigenous peoples and migrants, and respect for ethnic, cultural and religious diversity in the Americas contribute to strengthening democracy and citizen participation.”

Within OAS member states, as well, we have achieved substantial progress in legal systems to protect these rights. This is evident in such countries as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela that have recognized indigenous cultural and ethnic roots in their societies and have taken steps in ensuring their rights.

In the past decade, then, both within individual countries, and at the multilateral level, we have been witness to new efforts which have given rise to what we believe is a redefinition of the relationship among indigenous communities, the state and civil society. Those of you at this conference are a vivid and true example of what this new set of relationships represent, where the entrepreneurial spirit has been a modernizing pioneer.

Our societies and governments in the Americas are beginning to focus on ideas that promote diversity and tolerance, and ultimately reflect a new level of sophistication on the issue. And perhaps most importantly, we have learned that the only way to do this in a manner which leaves us with a positive and lasting legacy is to do it in close partnership with indigenous communities such as those which are widely represented at this summit.

Once again, thank you for the invitation and allowing me to bring you up to date on some of our recent work. I wish you well in your conference.