The University of Arizona

UA Law Professor Raises Awareness of Indigenous People's Struggles Worldwide

By Eric Swedlund, University Communications | February 26, 2014

James Anaya provides the U.N. with critical data while giving UA law students invaluable learning experiences.

S. James Anaya, who joined the UA in 1999, has taught and conducted research on international human rights, rights of indigenous peoples and constitutional law.
S. James Anaya, who joined the UA in 1999, has taught and conducted research on international human rights, rights of indigenous peoples and constitutional law.

Since 2008, University of Arizona law professor S. James Anaya has traveled the globe, investigating and reporting on the conditions of indigenous peoples and bringing attention to human rights issues that affect them.

Relying on a support staff of law students, Anaya has provided his findings to the United Nations as a special rapporteur to the Human Rights Council, a 47-member intergovernmental body tasked with examining and solving global human rights violations. His term ends in April.

Anaya, a Regents' Professor and the James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy at the James E. Rogers College of Law, has worked on a wide variety of human rights investigations involving more than 40 countries. The investigations have taken place in 25 countries, with some taking several days and others more than a week.

His efforts focus on identifying and solving problems in areas in which indigenous conditions are below human rights standards set by the U.N. Media have reported that Anaya has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of that work.

"In many countries, including the United States, indigenous people are invisible. Even here in Arizona and in our community at the University, there’s a lack of awareness of the indigenous people who live around us and their reality," Anaya says. "Without awareness by the broader public, it’s hard to have sustained initiatives that the politicians and governments can put their weight behind."

In Canada, where Anaya recently visited, the indigenous people are very aware of the U.N. and its initiatives. The people he met with were engaging and took full advantage of his visit, he said.

However, in other locations, such as Africa, "some people don't even know about the U.N. or the concept of human rights. In some cases, it's been the first time somebody from the outside had shown any concern."

In addition to a lack of awareness, Anaya has faced other hurdles, such as conflicts created by extractive industries, like mining, oil and gas. These conflicts can result in significantly negative consequences for indigenous peoples.

"The solution isn't necessarily to stop the industry activity, and that's not necessarily what indigenous people want. They want equitable arrangements and development that respects their rights around those resources. The challenge is to come up with adequate models for that to happen."

Providing UA students with real-world experience

By allowing UA law students to join in his work, Anaya has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them as well.

Prior to leaving for an on-location investigation, Anaya’s students will prepare background research for him, as well as memos for his mission.

"The students mainly do research on different situations we come across and they participate in some of the discussions on the issues involved and the legal framework that exists," he said.

Anaya says students have been key assets in particular cases and meetings he's had with indigenous organizations and governments. When he can, he takes students to meetings at the U.N., either in New York or Geneva, and occasionally the students go on field missions. 

"This is very unique because most students do not get the front-line human rights experiences and if they do, it’s preparing the petitions to go to the U.N. We’re at the receiving end of those petitions,"Anaya says. "It's intensive and I expect students to work and contribute. I hope that they understand their work is helping real-life situations.” 

Brendan Kennedy, a student in the Special Rapporteur support workshop at the College of Law, has found his time with Anaya to be invaluable.

Studying for a master's degree in indigenous peoples law and policy, Kennedy says Anaya's role at the U.N. was among the factors that brought him to Tucson. 

"I've always been interested in trying to get more experience in international human rights and how it implicates indigenous peoples," says Kennedy, who earned an undergraduate degree in Pacific studies and political science from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and a law degree from Suffolk University. 

José Solis Jr., who came to the UA with a master's in communication studies from New Mexico State University and undergraduate degrees in journalism and Spanish from Morehead State University, says the workshop has given him an understanding of how different laws and legal systems function around the world, while a trip to Colombia and research for a mission to Panama have shown him firsthand how Anaya's mandate impacts people. 

"Working on the support staff has given me a view of international law and how it works and has given me a lot more insight and helped me see how working in international law might look like. I have learned a lot that I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else."

Anaya, who joined the UA in 1999, has taught and conducted research on international human rights, rights of indigenous peoples and constitutional law. Anaya is a Harvard Law School graduate, a recipient of many awards, including his appointment as Regents' Professor in 2010, served as a staff attorney for the National Indian Youth Council in Albuquerque, N.M., and as special counsel at the Indian Law Resource Center, also in Albuquerque.

To see his U.N. reports, visit http://unsr.jamesanaya.org.