Strengthening Indigenous Rights through Truth Commissions | July 19–21 New York


ICTJ is holding an expert conference on the relationship between truth-seeking as a transitional justice approach and indigenous rights. The objective of this meeting is to gain expert advice on the principles and procedures truth commissions should adopt to strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples.

View the press release announcing the conference.

The conference will critically assess the potential and limitations of truth commissions to contribute to strengthening indigenous rights. Our goal is to see truth commissions develop effective ways to incorporate and address indigenous people’s experiences of conflict and grave violations of human rights.

Indigenous peoples inhabit every region were ICTJ works today. They are disproportionately affected when a society descends into violent conflict or faces mass violations of human rights. Indigenous peoples are often especially targeted by acts of atrocity and the abuses of authoritarian states.

Even in the absence of armed conflict or authoritarian rule, indigenous peoples are disproportionately vulnerable to the consequences of material disadvantage, political disenfranchisement, and forced assimilation. Yet, in most legal systems, the experiences of indigenous peoples remain marginalized or inadequately addressed.

Truth commissions have investigated and reported on issues directly affecting the lives of indigenous peoples in countries marked by structural injustice or violence. The Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission—and similar efforts in Peru, Chile, and Paraguay—had a significant impact giving visibility to violations against indigenous peoples. In more recent years, we’ve seen truth commissions in Canada at a national level and elsewhere in an unofficial capacity established with the clear aim of furthering indigenous rights.

Truth commissions are often adopted in contexts where past violations of human rights cannot be fully addressed without seeking a deeper understanding of what went wrong and how to correct it. For this reason, we see much potential in the increasing linkages between truth-seeking mechanisms and the indigenous rights movement.

But truth commissions have not always addressed the specific rights and interests of indigenous peoples. This was the case where truth commissions did not recognize or respond to the distinct ways indigenous peoples were the targets of violence. Their character as “national” institutions may not capture the indigenous right to maintain distinct and autonomous social and political development. It may be a further problem should the rest of society consider a truth commission a promise for reconciliation without challenging and changing wrong assumptions, institutions, and policies that negatively affect indigenous peoples.

Strengthening indigenous rights through truth commissions therefore will mean rethinking a transitional justice approach to addressing the past. Some key questions emerge:

  • How can a truth commission best address cultural and language rights of indigenous peoples?
  • What are the advantages and challenges of land and resource rights as a topic of research for truth commissions?
  • How can truth commissions be consistent with the self-determination and political rights of indigenous peoples?

With these and other questions driving our work, the objective of our conference is to begin identifying standards and principles that will help ensure truth commissions better support the rights of indigenous peoples.

View Conference Agenda

Conference Papers

Additional final papers will be available on this page in September 2011, and will include:

  • Deborah Yashar, “Indigenous Rights and Truth Commissions: Reflections for Discussion”
  • Paige Arthur, “Indigenous Self-Determination and Political Rights: Practical Recommendations for Truth Commissions”
  • Cesar Rodriguez-Garavito & Yukyan Lam, “Addressing Violations of Indigenous Peoples’ Territory, Land and Resource Rights During Conflict and Transitions”

Photo:Peruvian women knitting a 1km scarf to remember the country's disappeared and call for greater help in finding the missing. Marina García Burgos