ICTJ and Partners Host International Expert Seminar on Access to Justice for Indigenous Peoples

2/26/2013

A visitor views photographs in the exhibition “Images to Resist Oblivion,” organized by the Center for Historical Memory and ICTJ in Colombia. (ICTJ-Colombia)


As demands for justice by indigenous communities around the world grow stronger, first nations and some governments are looking at ways to uncover the truth about the past, redress abuses suffered by indigenous peoples and their communities, and begin to heal as part of official truth-seeking policies.

From February 27-March 1, leading indigenous rights activists will join their counterparts and other experts from around the world at Columbia University, to discuss how best to use these types of mechanisms to strengthen the right to truth and access to justice for indigenous peoples.

The three-day "International Expert Seminar on Access to Justice for Indigenous Peoples Including Truth and Reconciliation" will receive the experiences of indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, including Canada, the United States, Colombia, Guatemala, Greenland, Russia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Australia.

The Expert Seminar will result in an unprecedented report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, exploring opportunities and challenges faced by indigenous peoples around the world in accessing justice.

The Expert Seminar will result in an unprecedented report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, exploring opportunities and challenges faced by indigenous peoples around the world in accessing justice.
    The keynote address will be given by Pablo de Greiff, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. ICTJ Vice President Paul Seils and Director of ICTJ’s Truth and Memory Program Eduardo Gonzalez will join other international experts such as Mr. Antti Korkeakivi, Chief, Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section of OHCHR; Professor Elsa Stamatopoulou, Director of ISHR’s Indigenous Peoples’ Program, and Grand Chief Edward John, Chairperson, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples.

The dialogue will focus on several central aspects of indigenous peoples’ access to justice, including: the relationship between truth and reconciliation processes to self-determination; recommendations arising from truth and reconciliation processes; the impact of historical grievances; administration of criminal justice in connection with indigenous peoples; and access to justice of indigenous women, youth and persons with disabilities.

The Expert Seminar is organized and hosted by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights of Columbia University (Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Follow ICTJ as we report live from the conference: follow us on Twitter starting at 9am EST Wednesday, February 27, 2013, with the hashtag #Justice4FirstNations

Background: Indigenous People’s Access to Justice

“Indigenous peoples are among the most affected populations in contexts of violence,” said Gonzalez. “Even in contexts that are not marked by dictatorship or by internal conflict, indigenous peoples are affected by systemic, structural abuse.”

Around the world, indigenous rights movements are adopting transitional justice measures of truth-seeking to address decades of acute injustices, and renew reconciliation efforts for generations of loss.

These projects have been particularly active in the Americas, where two newly established truth commissions have received international attention: the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commissionand the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). Both were established to examine violations committed by the state against indigenous peoples, and both were established by indigenous peoples themselves in coordination with government. This is an entirely new phenomenon.    
Indigenous rights movements are adopting transitional justice measures of truth-seeking to address decades of acute injustices, and renew reconciliation efforts for generations of loss.

Chief Wilton Littlechild, who will attend the meeting, is one of three commissioners of the Canada TRC and chair of the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He is a survivor of residential schools himself and an outspoken advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples.

For more than 150 years, the Canadian government systematically removed Aboriginal children from their homes and placed them in church-run residential schools, with the intention of assimilating them into mainstream Canadian society.

“When I was a child, before I went to residential school, I was raised by my grandparents. I was brought up in a very traditional way with my Cree language, Cree culture, and Cree ceremonies,” recounted Chief Littlechild. “One day, I was dropped off at residential school . . . and it was a whole new world where I didn’t even understand the language.”

In Colombia, as peace negotiations continue between the government and FARC rebels, the government recently mandated that a truth commission be established to examine violations committed during decades of armed conflict. The conflict has disproportionately affected indigenous communities, due in large part to the rich land they inhabit.

Alcibíades Escué, the leader of the Cauca community, which is very active among the various indigenous communities that inhabit Colombia’s valleys, will be among the international speakers at the Expert Seminar in New York. In the face of violence and intimidation, the Cauca developed their own security measures to protect their people, and have created a memory center called a “House of Thinking,” where they share their experiences and suffering.

In Guatemala, the Historical Clarification Commission, an official truth seeking mechanism, completed its work in 1999. It found that over 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, and 83% of victims were Mayan.

Through its investigations, the truth commission laid the initial groundwork for the landmark case of former general Efraín Ríos Montt, who will soon stand trial for charges of genocide.

Alvaro Pop, a meeting participant and Mayan himself who assisted with preparations of the Guatemalan Peace Accords, knows how hard it can be for indigenous peoples to raise their concerns. Although Mayans represent nearly 50 percent of Guatemalans and are a stronghold of the economy, they still live “like strangers in their own land,” says Pop.

The Expert Seminar will also include indigenous experts from Russia who face great challenges in their efforts to improve access to justice and accountability measures. Members of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, the largest umbrella organization of indigenous peoples in the country, will share perspectives on access to justice in relation to land, territories, and resources, as well as the use of international and regional justice systems to address historic grievances.


Follow ICTJ as we report live from the conference: follow us on Twitter starting at 9am EST Wednesday, February 27, 2013, with the hashtag #Justice4FirstNations

Read more about ICTJ's ongoing work on transitional justice and indigenous peoples in this interview with Eduardo Gonzalez.