RIGHTS: UN Anti-Racism Committee Concerned for Indians in Peru
GENEVA -- The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern this week over the treatment received by indigenous communities in Peru.
By Gustavo Capdevila
The already tense relations between the government of President Alan García and indigenous leaders became even more so after a Jun. 5 incident in which native protesters and police were killed at a roadblock on the highway near the town of Bagua in the northern Peruvian jungle province of Amazonas.
A report by the Peruvian ombudsman´s office states that nine civilians and 23 police were killed in the incident. According to native leaders and activists, the police were ordered on Jun. 5 to forcibly evict the protesters - who had been blocking traffic along the highway in that jungle region off and on for a month - even though the demonstrators were already preparing to leave that very morning, under an agreement reached with the local police chief.
The indigenous associations were protesting decrees issued by the García administration for the implementation of the free trade agreement signed with the United States, which promote private investment in native territories and open up the Amazon jungle to oil, mining, agribusiness and logging companies.
Since the Jun. 5 incident – when the number of protesters killed was much higher than the official death toll, according to the indigenous groups – two of the most controversial government decrees have been lifted.
Different interpretations of what happened at the roadblock have contributed to accentuating the differences between the government and native leaders, as seen during CERD´s review of Peru´s fulfillment of its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Miguel Palacín Quispe, leader of the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organisations (CAOI), said the Geneva-based CERD took a real interest in the Peruvian case "because of things that have been going on for a long time, and the incident in Bagua, which was a catalyst, the consequences of which were suffered by our indigenous brothers and sisters and by the police who were sent in."
José Francisco Cali Tzay, the CERD rapporteur on the situation in Peru, said the Committee´s concerns about the country range from a deep, overall concern about "structural racism" in the country to specific aspects like access to clean water by native populations or discrimination in the public administration.
The Peruvian government delegation, headed by Justice Minister Aurelio Pastor Valdivieso, left these and other questions unanswered for reasons of time, promising to submit a response in writing shortly.
Peru and the other 172 states parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination must submit a report every two years on their efforts to comply with the Convention, which is reviewed by the 18 independent experts who make up the CERD.
At the CERD´s 75th session, which will run Aug. 3-28 in Geneva, Valdivieso said he understood that the Committee, even though it is an impartial body, is bound to be more predisposed towards monitoring a state than overseeing society as a whole. "Just as I understand this, I hope they understand that I am bringing the political position of a government that believes that the things it is doing are right," the minister told IPS. "In politics there can be nuanced positions, varying viewpoints, but the statistics tell us that we are achieving positive results."
The head of the delegation dedicated a large part of his presentation before the Committee to proclaiming the government´s economic and social achievements. Valdivieso said his country enjoys the highest economic growth and lowest inflation rates in Latin America, and that the poverty rate has dropped from 48 percent of the population when García took office three years ago to 36 percent today. "We are still a country marked by major inequalities," he admitted. He said, however, that poverty does not only affect indigenous or black communities, but cuts across all ethnic groups, and does not affect any specific group in particular.
While it is true that a large part of native communities live in poverty, it is not a problem that is exclusive to them, Valdivieso pointed out. But Palacín Quispe told IPS that the inequalities "are on the part of the government in Peru, which discriminates and designs policies only for certain sectors of society, to the detriment of others." For example, he said, there is no policy on indigenous people. That angle was examined by several experts on the Committee, who demanded that the government explain what participation indigenous and black communities have in the model of society it is promoting.
"The general response we were given solely refers to the issue of development. But we are concerned that this discourse, as often occurs, can be used as a policy of assimilation," said Cali Tzay. "We hope that this is not what is happening in Peru, and we would like to know what precisely they are talking about when they refer to ´development´," said the rapporteur.
Palacín Quispe complained that the Peruvian state has never had a political structure that includes indigenous people. According to the 1993 census, indigenous people made up one-third of the Peruvian population. But more recent estimates put the proportion at 45 percent, with most of the rest of the population of 29 million being of mixed-race (Spanish and native) heritage.
The National Institute for Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (INDEPA), finally created after a 10-year struggle by indigenous and black people, has become "a useless office, without a clear mandate and without suitable staff," said Palacín Quispe. The CAOI leader also said the government has issued 11 decrees that "criminalise social movements."
"In Peru, placing a rock on a road (to blockade traffic in a protest) is a crime punishable by 15 years in prison, just as it is a crime to make public statements against the government´s policies," he said. "When you express your opinion against the government, you are a ´Chavista´ (a follower of left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez), you are a terrorist. But Minister Valdivieso didn´t tell the CERD about that," he said.
Cali Tzay asked for information on the government´s position regarding the proposal to set up an independent commission to investigate the incident in Bagua, put forth by United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya.
Valdivieso told IPS that a judicial investigation of the events in Bagua is currently underway in Peru, and that no one can interfere with the inquiry, in accordance with the constitution. Once the probe is completed, a commission could be established not only to investigate the incident itself but also the state´s role in what happened, he added. But "my opinion is that, conversing with the rest of the council of ministers and the president himself," this will not be seen as necessary, Valdivieso ventured.
Palacín Quispe said he was disturbed by Valdivieso´s assertion before the CERD that in Bagua, indigenous people attacked a police station, stole weapons and used them to kill policemen. "The minister is lying. The ombudsman himself, and the attorney general´s office, who have investigated the events, said the indigenous people were unarmed," the native leader said.
Published by: Aslak Paltto