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MRG calls on governments to respect international treaties on indigenous rights

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LONDON- In a statement issued today, the London-based organization Minority Rights Group International, (MRG) joined other international bodies in calling for an end to the human rights abuses, violence and loss of life in connection with protests by indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon.

The organization's executive director Mark Lattimer cited the vital need for states to comply with international instruments safeguarding indigenous rights. These include the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, the International Labour Organization's Convention No.169 on indigenous and tribal peoples, as well as the American Convention on Human Rights.

According to the MRG director, the situation in Peru clearly demonstrates why the failure of governments to abide by international treaties on indigenous rights, non-discrimination and equal respect under the law, can have serious long-term social, economic and political consequences. He stressed that governments have the responsibility to comply with these laws in good faith, and noted that Peru ratified the ILO Convention in February 1994.

One of the key clauses of the ILO Convention involves the right of indigenous peoples to be consulted on issues which will directly affect their lives and well-being. Peru's indigenous groups, however, have accused the government of treating them like second-class citizens. In addition, since the violence erupted in the Amazon, Peruvian President Alan Garcia has been internationally quoted as referring to indigenous protesters as "savages." This not only suggests the existence of a climate of prejudice and disrespect at the highest levels of national administration but also runs counter to other UN treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). From a practical perspective, such attitudes may serve to diminish any moral obligations to consult with the affected groups and negatively affect the nature and quality of any resulting dialogue.

Development Dreams

Since regaining office, President Garcia's economic plan has focused on encouraging international investment, especially by resource extraction industries, some of which are based in EU member-states. Many of the resources in question are sub-soil and are located in areas inhabited by indigenous groups. Critics immediately noted that the plan includes an overly robust campaign to weaken the rights of local communities to determine and influence development plans that directly affect them. These critics also question the overall expansionist model of development similar to those already under fire in neighbouring states like Brazil and Ecuador, which also have significant indigenous populations in their Amazon regions.

In light of the ongoing debate on climate change , local and international environmental, human rights, and indigenous organizations have also expressed their profound concern about the potentially devastating impacts of unregulated extractive activities in the Peruvian Amazon, which makes up roughly 11% of the Amazon basin's total rainforests. The rest is shared with neighbouring states such as Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Paraguay.

Earlier this year, farmers living along the Amazon River in Brazil had their livelihoods wiped out by devastating floods, with total national losses running in excess of $500 million. According to the BBC, in May 2009, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was reported as saying that the unprecedented and costly floods in the north and a drought in the south of Brazil are signs of regional climate change.

“Obstacles to Progress”

In a further parallel to its neighbours, Peru also has indigenous groups living in the Amazon region who argue that their voices need to be heard, "having been born and raised in the middle of the forest," where some groups still live in voluntary isolation. In contrast, Peru's President Garcia is on record as saying that indigenous peoples' traditional use of their lands is an obstacle to progress and development (El Commercio October 2007). Faced with the need to deliver on the terms of the United States Peru Trade Promotion Act, in 2008 the Peruvian Congress passed Law 29157 and 99 other Legislative Decrees, designed to facilitate the privatization of collectively held lands.

Indigenous organizations and human rights groups denounced many of the decrees, on the grounds that they systematically undermine the legal rights of indigenous peoples to their territories. This includes reverting to government control titled areas considered abandoned or idle, and promoting privatization of communally held indigenous lands. The affected indigenous peoples were not consulted prior to congressional approval, in direct contravention to the ILO Convention.

Arguably the most controversial government decree is DL 1064 Article 8(4), which removes the requirement for negotiation with a community prior to carrying out projects on their land. However, under the ILO Convention, the government has an obligation to consult with indigenous peoples prior to signing contracts and establishing any development projects that will affect them. The decree also lacks any requirement for companies to negotiate at least a financial settlement with a community prior to entry.

Another equally thorny issue is DL 1064 Article 7, which reclassifies communal land rights as subordinate to individual and private ownership. Under article 14 of the ILO Convention, indigenous peoples' land rights have particular protection. However, the sub-clauses of article 7 of the new Peruvian law blatantly runs counter to this by favouring outside interests in any legal dispute concerning their actions on indigenous lands.

Tough Stance

Since indigenous protests against these measures began in early August 2008, President Garcia's government has taken a hard line, declaring States of Emergency in selected departments such as Bagua. The government also re-invoked legislative decrees from July 2007,which call for longer prison sentences for crimes leading to public disorder, immunity for security personnel who harm or kill protesters, and the penalization of participation by public functionaries in social protests.

This translated into the militarization of protest areas and violent repression. These decrees have also been used to try to prosecute rights activists, such as Alberto Pizango the leader of the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP), who has now been forced to seek asylum in Nicaragua The attempted prosecution occurred despite the fact that AIDESEP's leadership had already entered into talks with Congressional leaders, including the President of the Congress, and legislators had agreed to rescind DL 1073 (a modified version of DL 1015).

Since 9 April 2009, 64 indigenous tribal groups of the Peruvian Amazon region have been on strike, closing down jungle towns and blocking roads, rivers and pipelines. Despite having specific individual demands, all are united in protest against government policies that fail to recognize their rights and have demanded that the decrees be repealed. Consequently, indigenous people with wooden spears have faced down well-armed anti-riot police in protests against what they claim are policies that will only benefit a handful of local individuals and large international extraction companies while leaving indigenous communities destitute.

So far, reports state that at least 34 people have been killed and many more injured. While MRG does not condone the use of force by either side, the Peruvian authorities must acknowledge the legitimacy of the protesters’ claims and recognize that serious rights issues are at stake. Otherwise, there is a considerable risk that discontent in Peru will continue to simmer only to erupt again in further displays of frustration and violence.

MRG has indicated that it will continue to monitor developments and has called the revoking of two of the controversial decrees on Amazon land ownership on 19 June 2009 and the ongoing dialogue as steps in the right direction towards resolving the deadlock. "Communication and consultation are major keys to resolving such conflicts and ensuring indigenous peoples achieve the rights and respect they are entitled to under international law," said Mark Lattimer.

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