The University of Arizona

Law Professor Promoting Human Rights for World's Indigenous People

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications | July 27, 2009

UA law professor S. James Anaya reflects on his first year serving as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples.

S. James Anaya, a UA law professor, is serving as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples.
S. James Anaya, a UA law professor, is serving as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples.
S. James Anaya met earlier this year with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet regarding the country's indigenous policy. He often meets with government officials and indigenous peoples to talk about the condition of oppressed people, and to determine mechanisms for remedying poor conditions. (Credit: James E. Rogers College of Law)
S. James Anaya met earlier this year with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet regarding the country's indigenous policy. He often meets with government officials and indigenous peoples to talk about the condition of oppressed people, and to determine mechanisms for remedying poor conditions. (Credit: James E. Rogers College of Law)

Even in countries that have some of the most proactive programs and initiatives in place to protect and preserve the rights of indigenous peoples, the situation around the world remains dire.

S. James Anaya, a University of Arizona law professor appointed last year to serve as the United Nations' Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, said insecure land and resource rights, discrimination, poverty, violence, lack of access to basic services and other issues are among the prevailing problems, including in countries like Brazil and Australia despite proactive efforts. 

"You see these very elaborate programs for indigenous people, but there are still deep seeded problems," said Anaya, the James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy at the James E. Rogers College of Law

Anaya just completed his annual report to the United Nations Human Rights Council and met recently Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the president of Colombia.

Next month – during the U.N.'s Aug. 10 observation of the International Day of the World's Indigenous People – Anaya will take part in the annual meeting of the U.N. Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva. The meeting of will address issues concerning indigenous peoples worldwide.

"There are a lot of countries with admirable incentives that are moving in the right direction," Anaya said. "But still, the conditions on the ground lag behind the aspirations. And I think this is a testament of the complexity of the problem."

To create a shift for oppressed people will require "concerted action" on the part of states, the United Nations system and also indigenous people, who Anaya said must be both proactive and constructive.

Globally, the condition for indigenous peoples must be remedied through public policy and reform of educational, political and legal systems so that indigenous peoples are validated and also can be more actively involved.

As the Special Rapporteur, Anaya has spent the year traveling around the world investigating allegations of human rights violations, meeting the governments of the countries visited and with indigenous poeples where they live.

He also is responsible for promoting avenues for indigenous peoples to meet with governments, nongovernmental organizations, U.N. agencies and others to address the many challenges they face.

He has traveled to Botswana to raise awareness of discrimination and problems with education, land rights and poverty that populations there are facing; met Chilean President Michelle Bachelet regarding the country's indigenous policy; visited Nepal and urged the government there to improve indigenous rights; met with government officials and indigenous groups in Brazil to address a range of concerns; and also has denounced anti-indigenous acts by private landowners in Bolivia.

In June, Anaya travelled to Peru to investigate a clash that resulted in an estimated 30 people being killed and more than 100 people being injured. 

Anaya urged the Peruvian government to consult with indigenous peoples and recommended that an independent commission be established to investigate the clash between police officers and Peruvian Indians who were protesting for land rights in the Amazon. 

In his annual report to the Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental entity that operates within the U.N., Anaya detailed his previous year's work and the continued challenges indigenous peoples face, noting that he is looking more closely at gender issues and challenges facing children.

The problems indigenous peoples face often lie in the lack economic and political power. Anaya noted that a core problem is that indigenous people consistently receive little information and consultation about decisions being made that affect their lives and territories.

"A lack of adequate consultation is related to conflictive situations and profound expressions of discontent, mistrust and even anger on the part of indigenous peoples in various scenarios across the world," he noted.

Yet indigenous peoples are trying to become increasingly engaged, particularly via social movements.

Anaya said more people are working to directly address their governments, relay information about their lives through the media and the Internet, and also working with influential organizations.

And many are going to the courts, especially in North America, he said, adding that each day he receives multiple complaints from indigenous people around the world alleging human rights violations.

Managing such a large caseload is quite difficult, Anaya said, adding that he is supported by U.N. staff and has enlisted assistance from staff members and researchers with the University's Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program. He has also held a seminar at the UA, involving University law students in his research as well.

"I am very proud of the staff and my students and the role they are playing," Anaya said.

This helps, particularly because his priority has been to ensure that the voices of people are being heard. That was especially true in Peru.

"What I think I have been able to do is to help open up the debate, frame it and point out issues that may not have been on the government's agenda," Anaya said.

"Certainly I would say that the impact of my work varies," he added, "I think I have been able to raise issues and discussions in many ways to move things more favorably forward."

Contacts

Nancy Stanley

James E. Rogers College of Law

520-621-8430

nancy.stanley@law.arizona.edu