The UNHRC and Amerindian rights
April 23, 2000
In our edition of Saturday, April 15, we reported on an Amerindian People's Association (APA) release, which quoted a recent United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) statement. According to the APA, the UNHRC had expressed regret that members of the indigenous population did not enjoy equality before the law. The remarks, said the APA, concurred with opinions given by other UN committees, namely the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) and that on Economy, Social and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR).
The first-named of these bodies had stated that "Amerindians could not readily participate in decisions affecting their lands, culture and traditions, and the allocation of natural resources. Amerindian life was regulated by the Amerindian Act, which gave the government power to determine who was an Amerindian, what was an Amerindian community, to appoint Amerindian leaders and where necessary, to annul decisions made by Amerindian councils." The APA in its comments on the statements raised the question of Amerindian land rights which, it said, had not been fully recognized and were frequently violated.
It was Dr Luncheon who had led the delegation to Geneva to respond to the UNHRC's questions, and he told this newspaper when asked about ancestral lands, that it was "an ill-defined term in Guyana's legal terminology... There were 50 Amerindian communities to be demarcated in some of the more distant parts of the country... [and leaders] were therefore invited to allow demarcation to be carried out based on the currently known boundaries. Once those areas were demarcated, then discussions with the Amerindian community on extensions... would take place..."
Minister Vibert De Souza in a press release on the UNHRC's reported statements itemised all the benefits which had come to the indigenous peoples over recent years, and said that land demarcation was moving apace. He also stated that there was constant dialogue with the communities, conferences by Amerindian captains and regular visits by ministers and government officials.
Minister de Souza appears to have confused demarcation issues with land rights, while Dr Luncheon's approach of demarcation first and extensions later seems to lack common sense. This was quickly pointed out to him by Ms La Rose of the APA in a letter to this newspaper published on April 19. What is the point in demarcating now if boundaries are to be adjusted later? Why should the taxpayer have to pay twice for the same exercise? she asked. One might add the query as to whether this is a smokescreen because the Government really doesn't intend to get around to discussing extensions in the foreseeable future.
As for all the benefits which have accrued to the Amerindians under the present administration as listed by Minister De Souza, these are not exactly relevant to the UNHRC's sphere of concern. The Minister is more to the point when he deals with the topic of dialogue with the indigenous communities. However, it has to be asked as to how much notice is taken of recommendations from captains' conferences. According to Ms La Rose, not much. She alleges that the Government has chosen to ignore the resolutions of the Touchaus' Conference last year. If indigenous people are to be able to exercise some genuine control over their 'lands, culture and traditions,' then there has to be a different kind of framework which would allow their views to be fed into administration policy-making, and ministers - however well-intentioned - zooming in and out of villages is clearly not that framework.
Land issues aside, the main target of the comments of all the UN committees is the 1976 Amerindian Act. Dr Luncheon attempted to wiggle out of this by saying that the updating of the act was part and parcel of the constitutional reform process. Not all of it, of course, will fall under the umbrella of that process, and some of the offensive portions could be repealed and others amended without waiting for the constitutional reformers, who would in any case be dealing with principles rather than substance. In fact, fairly early in this Government's first term all parties in Parliament had agreed unanimously (a rare occurrence) that the act should be amended. Nothing, however, happened thereafter, and the Government has now found itself in the unenviable position of being the subject of criticism from UN committees about its human rights shortcomings. It is yet another case where procrastination has engendered problems which could have been avoided.