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April 2, 2001




The consolidation of democracy and human rights protection in the Hemisphere involves the full respect of the rights of indigenous peoples, says Guatemala's Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS).

Ambassador Ronalth Ochaeta declared on Monday that "for centuries, millions of indigenous men, women, boys and girls have been socially, economically and politically marginalized all across the hemisphere." He added: "We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to this reality, but must work together towards those ideals set forth in the OAS Charter."

Inaugurating a special, weeklong session of the OAS Working Group to Prepare the Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Populations, the Guatemalan diplomat, who is also the Working Group's Chairman, commented as well on the participation of more than 70 indigenous leaders from around the Hemisphere, along with representatives from the 34 OAS member states. "This is a wonderful opportunity for us to discuss issues and exchange views."

OAS Secretary General César Gaviria observed in his remarks that, "as long as we have pockets of poverty, marginalization and exclusion, then democratization, integration among our nations, and socio-economic development in our countries will not be consolidated." He said such negative forces were hindering national development and the benefits of diversity.

Mr. Gaviria conceded that "we have not always respected or acknowledged the richness and depth of cultural diversity and the various socio-economic models used by indigenous communities." But he stressed his belief that "the status and rights of indigenous peoples deserve to be incorporated into the hemispheric agenda, alongside such other issues as poverty eradication and socio-economic inequality; strengthening and consolidation of democracy; and full respect for human rights."

For his part, the OAS Permanent Council Chairman, Colombia's Ambassador Humberto de la Calle, argued that "producing a Declaration would be a significant milestone in the history of the Organization." He added that the new approach to relations between and among states and to indigenous populations embraces a multiplicity of cultural values. "A process is now under way for recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and for their identity to be respected," he stated. 

Also addressing the session was the Chair of the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs, El Salvador's Ambassador Margarita Escobar, who insisted that "the Organization has made solid strides in getting inserted into our agenda a Declaration recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples." She recalled that back in 1989 the OAS General Assembly had asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for a draft Declaration and that such a draft--now before the current meeting--was produced in 1997, after intense consultations.

Speaking for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Margarita Gutiérrez, President of Mexico's National Plural Assembly for Autonomy, urged the OAS to reaffirm its commitment to promoting and protecting human rights for all peoples of the Americas, without discrimination.

"We must be given direct, full and meaningful opportunity to participate in this process and guaranteed unrestricted, open and real dialogue," to ensure that the legal instrument that emerges is the product of cooperation, she argued. "It is our firm conviction that the collective human rights of indigenous peoples are inalienable, cannot be terminated and should be respected in any American Declaration arising from this process."