Blog: Indigenous Rights
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May 6, 2020
Posted by Dana Walters
Yee Htun speaks about respecting refugee rights in the midst of a global pandemic
Across southeast Asia, hundreds of thousands of persecuted ethnic minorities in poverty face a new threat: the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rohingya people have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence. Since August 2017, more than 745,000 ethnic Rohingya have escaped oppression and violence in Myanmar and live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. In November 2019, a case was filed against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice alleging that the crimes committed against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, violate the Genocide Convention.
Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic was one of 50 organizations to send a joint letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh urging the government to uphold refugee rights as the world faces and fights the novel coronavirus. Still, ongoing violence in Myanmar means individuals continue to flee, this time facing border restrictions and lockdowns. Most recently, boats of escaping Rohingya were turned away at Malaysia’s border, a move that sparked condemnation from human rights groups.
The Human Rights Program recently spoke with Yee Htun, clinical instructor and lecturer on law in the International Human Rights Clinic, to learn more about how Myanmar and those who have fled the state are confronting this crisis. Htun was born in Myanmar and fled the country after the pro-democratic uprising in 1988.Continue Reading…
November 19, 2019
Mamani Plaintiff Teófilo Baltazar Cerro Pens Op-Ed Urging 11th Circuit to Reinstate $10 Million Verdict
This story originally ran in NACLA Reports (North American Congress on Latin America) under the title, “Survivors Fight for Justice for 2003 Bolivian Military Massacre.”
Teófilo is one of the nine plaintiffs in Mamani et al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, a U.S. federal lawsuit against Bolivia’s former president and defense minister.
On November 19, surviving family members of a 2003 massacre in El Alto are urging the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate a $10 million judgement against Bolivia’s former president and defense minister.
Last week in Bolivia, a president resigned under military pressure as civilian supporters of different political parties clashed in the streets. Bolivia is in turmoil today, and not for the first time. Sixteen years ago, at a time of political protests against the government’s plan to export Bolivian gas through Chilean ports, the army opened fire on civilians in the city of El Alto, killing over 70 people, including my wife and our unborn child.
One way to stop such violence is to provide justice for past acts: to hold accountable those in command of the forces that shoot at unarmed civilians. That is why I am in Miami today. Together with eight fellow plaintiffs who also lost loved ones in the massacre, I will continue to appeal the decision to overturn a ruling that held the masterminds of these killings responsible.
When the Eleventh Circuit hears the appeal in what is known as the Mamani case today, it will be an important test. Can the legal system deliver justice for people like me? From a young age, as an Indigenous Aymara person growing up in Bolivia, I was taught that the answer was “no.” Although my country has the largest population of Indigenous peoples in South America—about 60 percent—we have always been treated as second class citizens. We did not have political or economic power. We did not have a voice. And our lives did not have much value.
In 2003, during what has become known as “Black October,” a soldier shot my pregnant wife, Teodosia, while she praying in her sister’s home. Over a period of several weeks, Bolivian soldiers, acting under the command of former president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada and his defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, massacred Indigenous Bolivians. Soldiers injured over 550 people and killed more than 70, including my wife and our unborn child.
Rather than simply mourn, though, I joined with others who had survived Black October. We decided to make the system work for us.After my wife was murdered, I did not know what to do. The love of my life was gone, and I was left alone to raise our seven children. Rather than simply mourn, though, I joined with others who had survived Black October. We decided to make the system work for us.Continue Reading…
October 27, 2015
Defenders of the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Environment: Comment on Recent Hearing At IACHR
Posted by Kiri Toki, LLM '16
Last week, a panel of Ecuadorian indigenous and mestiza women spoke at a Thematic Hearing in front of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) about their struggles protecting the Amazon Rainforest. They spoke about the longstanding and continuing extractive projects that have operated in the area, and the subsequent (and escalating) abuse they have faced at the hands of the Ecuadorian Government.
When speaking about the extractive projects, one woman, Gloria Ushigua, a Sapara woman, highlighted that there had been no consultation with the local people. “There has been no consultation” she said in an answer to one of the IACHR’s questions. “We don’t know how [the Ecuadorian land acquisition process] works.”
Other women also bravely recounted the criminalization and abuse that they have suffered in the wake of the recent Quito protests. Esperanza Martinez, who works with Acción Ecológica, explained that her emails had been hacked and that she has been stigmatized. Similarly, Margoth Escobar, a defender of the Amazon for over three decades, detailed how she had been arbitrarily detained, imprisoned, and beaten while in police custody. She in fact left Ecuador illegally to attend the hearing. She felt compelled to tell the IACHR what has been taking place, even though she believed that prison awaited her upon her return to Ecuador.
Sadly, the women’s struggle to protect their environment from extractive mining practices is a familiar story for many indigenous peoples. For instance, my own people, the Maori people of Aotearoa/New Zealand, have recently protested against government proposals to allow deep-sea oil drilling to take place off New Zealand’s coasts. Like many indigenous peoples, Maori view deep-sea oil drilling to be too intrusive, and the associated environmental risks to be too great.
As it happens, the IACHR is currently preparing a report on extractive industries and indigenous peoples. During the hearing, the IACHR noted that it is seeing a pattern throughout the Americas of threats against indigenous defenders and was particularly interested in the events in Ecuador for this reason. After thanking the women for their time, the IACHR explained that it would continue to monitor the situation in Ecuador.
While we can only speculate on what that report will entail, the IACHR’s report will be of interest to indigenous peoples worldwide. We await the release of the IACHR’s report and acknowledge those who, like these women, come forward and speak to the injustices that they continue face.
This blog post was written by Kiri Toki, who is a young, indigenous woman, of Maori descent (Ngati Wai/Ngapuhi) from Aotearoa/New Zealand. She is currently an LLM student at Harvard Law School, where she is focusing on indigenous rights and international law
March 10, 2015
Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein
After 11 long years of litigation, plaintiffs from Somalia learned yesterday that their $21 million judgment for damages for torture and war crimes would stand. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the appeal of the defendant, General Mohamed Ali Samantar, a former Somali Prime Minister and Minister of Defense who was implicated in the abuses. Samantar, who now lives in Virginia, can make no additional appeals.
Beyond the victory for the plaintiffs, counsel from the Center for Justice & Accountability noted this ruling is critically important because it preserves a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that found egregious rights violations cannot be considered “official acts” shielded by sovereign immunity.
The ruling comes amidst ongoing debate about how the United States should treat high-ranking former foreign government officials who are accused of human rights abuses and are now living in the United States. The International Human Rights Clinic and its partners have been involved since 2007 in one such case, Mamani et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, which brings Alien Tort Statute claims against the former President and the former Defense Minister of Bolivia for their role in extrajudicial killings in 2003. Last Friday, the Mamani plaintiffs filed a brief with the Eleventh Circuit opposing the defendants’ appeal, which is considering the issues of exhaustion of remedies and command responsibility.
Like Samantar, the defendants in Mamani came to the United States after leaving power, and have remained in the country ever since.
September 9, 2013
Clinic and Partners Release Book Criticizing Chile for Failure to Meet International Obligations Towards Indigenous Peoples
Posted by Daniel Saver, JD '12, Skadden Fellow, Community Legal Services, East Palo Alto
Jointly with Stanford Law School, the Universidad Diego Portales, and the Universidad de Los Andes, the International Human Rights Clinic released a book today about the consultation rights of indigenous peoples in Chile. The book critiques the Chilean government’s failure to guarantee indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation, an international legal obligation Chile agreed to when it ratified International Labor Organization Convention 169 in 2008. See below for the full press release in English, then in Spanish:
Chile Fails to Meet International Obligations Towards Indigenous Peoples, Human Rights Experts Find
Book by international team of human rights experts documents violations of indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation
September 9, 2013, Santiago, Chile – Nearly five years after ratifying the International Labor Organization Convention 169 (“ILO 169”), Chile continues to violate indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation, according to a book released today by human rights experts in the Consorcio Norte-Sur. The Consorcio is a partnership between Harvard Law School, Stanford Law School, the Universidad Diego Portales (Chile), and the Universidad de Los Andes (Colombia).
The Spanish-language book, titled “No Nos Toman en Cuenta” (“They Don’t Consider Us”), provides the most comprehensive review of the consultation rights of Chile’s indigenous people to date. The book examines several ways that the Chilean government has failed to guarantee indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation, including the government’s failure to implement international norms within its domestic legal system. The book also features in-depth case studies that document specific rights violations caused by salmon farming projects in indigenous territory in the south of the country.
“Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation guaranteed by ILO 169 is intended to ensure that these historically marginalized groups are able to participate in a meaningful way in decisions that directly affect them,” said Jorge Contesse, former director of Universidad Diego Portales’ Human Rights Center, now a law professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark. “The failure to implement this right not only violates Chile’s international legal obligations, but also perpetuates distrust between indigenous peoples and the Chilean government, fueling conflict between the two.”
The case of the salmon hatcheries studied in the book highlights this dynamic. Researchers found that often the only consultation-like procedures were conducted by private investors, who provided special benefits for select members of indigenous communities in return for their support. Community members told investigators that this impermissible abdication of the state’s obligation to consult created conflict and upset traditional leadership structures and decision-making processes.
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