Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 29 2006 (IPS) — Recent contacts between Bolivian President Evo Morales and leaders of North American native groups have raised new hopes for the indigenous people of North and South America, whose 500-year-old struggle for self-determination has yet to be recognised by the world.

When Morales, Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president, arrived in New York some two weeks ago to attend the United Nations General Assembly session, the first thing he did the very next morning was to request a meeting with the Native sons and daughters of the soil.

He was immediately welcomed with traditional warmth.

“It was a meeting between the eagle and the condor,” Tonya Frichner, founder of the New York-based American Indian Law Alliance, an indigenous rights group, which organised the meeting in collaboration with the U.N. Indigenous Peoples’ Forum.

“It was a very significant meeting in our struggles,” she added. “For him to honour us by meeting with our traditional leaders is another step in the undeniable presence of indigenous peoples in international advocacy, especially human rights.”

Before meeting with the Native American leaders from the Haudenosaunee, Lakota and Cree nations, among others, Morales insisted that the gathering should be small because he wanted to have a “frank and substantive” discussion on the issues shared by the native peoples of the Western hemisphere.

The North American tribal leaders told Morales about how they have been struggling to preserve their identity, resources and rights for generations, and asked what they could do to support the natives of South America.

For his part, Morales, who is an Aymara Indian, emphasised the need for continued contacts between the indigenous people of the hemisphere and stated that the “time has come for resistance to power.”

“Meeting with you here today obligates me to be even more committed to our Mother Earth,” he told his hosts from the North American nations.

Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said when most of the world speaks of freedom, it speaks only of humans. “But society must also include freedom for the natural world, the plants, the animals, the water.”

In his view, “everything must be a complement to everything else, and this is more than freedom. It is a balance of all life we seek.”

Both sides agreed to arrange more meetings between the indigenous people of the South and the North and exchanged invitations for visits.

During his discussions, Morales also took up the issue of the Declaration of the Rights of the World’s Indigenous People, which is due to be discussed by the General Assembly this fall for adoption.

Despite strong objections from the United States and some of its allies, the declaration has been endorsed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, as well as various other U.N agencies. The document, which was put together by the world body’s Indigenous Peoples Forum early this year, calls for the governments to recognise the native peoples’ right to self-determination and the principle of “prior and informed consent” with regard to development activities on native lands.

Indigenous leaders see the declaration as a turning point in their efforts to put an end to the massive human rights abuses that native peoples around the world have faced for centuries.

Though it is not binding on governments, indigenous leaders hope that it would help increase pressure to observe such universal principles as justice, democracy, respect for human rights and equality.

According to the U.N., there are more than 370 million indigenous peoples in the world, whose participation in the global efforts to preserve the environment and introduce sustainable development is indispensable.

While many U.N. member states seem willing to adopt the declaration as it is, observers say a few countries are likely to push for changes in the language of the text. But indigenous leaders say such efforts are likely to fail.

“I feel very positive about the outcome from the General Assembly,” Frichner, who actively participated in the preparation of the text, told IPS. “We have been assured of support from many regions of the world.”

The United States, Australia and New Zealand, for example, have consistently opposed the demand for “self-determination” by arguing that it undermines “democratic values”. They have also objected to the phrase “prior and informed consent”.

For his part, Morales is also actively involved in the efforts to gather support for the declaration from the countries of the South, which dominate the 192-member General Assembly.

In his recent speech to the General Assembly, like Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Morales emerged as another harsh critic of the U.S. role in global politics and economy, saying that it has no right to impose its “neoliberal” economic models of development on the world’s poor and indigenous people.

“He is honest, he is brilliant and sincere to the cause of indigenous peoples,” said Frichner from the American Indian Onondaga Nation. “We know he cannot fix all that has happened in the past 500 years, but it is our responsibility to be supportive of him.”


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