Dialogue with indigenous representatives in Chiapas

A question and answer session was organized on the morning of 3 November between the participants in the conference and representatives of the 15 recognized indigenous peoples in Chiapas, many of them being mayors of indigenous municipalities. The meeting took place in the presence of the Governor of Chiapas, Juan Sabines Guerrero, the Secretary General of the IPU, Anders B. Johnsson, and Senator Andrés Galván Rivas (Mexico). Dialogue was facilitated by Dr. Blanca Ruth Esponda Espinoza for the indigenous peoples and by Mrs. Otilia Lux de Coti for the Conference participants.

The questions concerned mainly the following subjects:

  • The implementation of ILO Convention 169 in Chiapas
  • Educational issues, in particular whether or not there was bilingual and multicultural education, whether financial assistance (scholarships) was provided to indigenous children and whether such assistance was extended for the entire school curriculum; whether there was an obligation for indigenous professionals having had the benefit of a scholarship to serve their communities for some time;
  • The way the representation of indigenous peoples was organised; their relationship with the provincial governmental authorities
  • The ownership of natural resources and land restitution
  • The utilisation of genetically engineered seeds
  • The impact of climate change
  • The role of indigenous women
  • The fight against poverty and for the creation of jobs and productivity
  • The organisation of the health system: what was done to promote indigenous doctors and nurses, to establish intercultural hospitals, to valorise indigenous plants and medicine
  • The way the security within indigenous territories and for indigenous peoples was organised

The following answers were provided:

All speakers stressed that the present Government of Chiapas was an ally and was doing much to ensure in particular basic services. The Government received information from the most remote corners of Chiapas and was therefore aware of the problems. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had been enshrined in the Constitution of the State of Chiapas and many programmes put in place to achieve them. One of the speakers gave a detailed overview of those programmes. A third of the budget was directed to the 28 poorest municipalities. Indigenous peoples made up the majority of the population in 27 of these municipalities. Speakers also mentioned the valuable contribution of the United Nations, in particular the UNDP. The general feeling was that indigenous peoples were listened to, not protected.

as regards the implementation of ILO Convention 169: all indigenous speakers stressed that decisions concerning IP were taken on the basis of dialogue with the governing authorities. Indigenous peoples were always consulted before decision-taking. Municipalities were spending much time in meetings and working sessions – recently a three day working session of municipalities had taken place.

One of the speakers mentioned a university research project concerning ways and means to protect and maintain multiculturalism in Chiapas. The project provided for the consultation of young people of the various regions, of adults and children.  Solutions were elaborated by the indigenous peoples themselves, the government provided the methodology.

as regards the utilisation of transgenic seeds: there were no transgenic plants in Chiapas. The main food was maize criolla and the government had initiated programs to study it and to strengthen scientific knowledge in this regard.

as regards land issues: 95% of the land was in indigenous hands. As in all other domains, dialogue was the preferred way of decision making with the result that all parties were satisfied and great advances in development were made, although there was still much to do.

as regards education: school was compulsory from 6 to 12 years and the first and second grades were free of charge. Teachers had to undergo multicultural education and there was an effort to ensure that teachers were speaking the language of the indigenous peoples they were teaching (which at present was not always the case). There was also a school to train indigenous teachers but it was insufficient given the demand. As regards scholarships, they were granted throughout the educational cycle, including for studies abroad.

as regards political parties and participation of indigenous peoples and women in government: there was no identity-based political party in Chiapas. Indigenous people who wanted to stand in election had to do so on the list of mainstream political parties.  Electoral lists had to provide for 50% of women candidates. As regards the selection of indigenous candidates, men and women of a municipality nominated their candidates who then presented their programme (proposals) and, on this basis, were elected by the entire population of the municipality (Asamblea general). Decisions were taken collectively and not individually. It  was stressed that the IP attending the meeting belonged to all existing political parties.

-as regards the health system: the increased budgetary means for indigenous peoples had led to improvements in the health system, in terms of more hospitals (17 new hospitals, 138 new health centers and 420 more hospital beds), clean water provision and maternal health. Speakers stressed that the Government promoted traditional midwives (20 additional midwives were now active) which had already led to a decrease of maternal mortality. One intercultural hospital existed. Also, in many houses, the mud floors had been replaced.

as regards the fight against poverty: speakers stressed that the government was putting in place programmes to create jobs, including through the use of Chiapas’ natural resources.  The federal deputy for Oaxaca who participated in the meeting mentioned in this respect the example of the exploitation of wood in Oaxaca which had led to the establishment of 10 stores at the national level.

In his speech at the end of the meeting, Governor Juan Sabines Guerrero affirmed that he was at the service not of a political party, but of the people. He mentioned that the situation of the indigenous peoples had come to the fore through the Zapatist revolution of 1994, which had led to the San Andres Agreement. The objective of his Government was to implement the provisions of that Agreement. The strategy to accomplish this was through the MDGs. He then mentioned the various initiatives that his Government had already taken to this end and the programmes that were under way.

The Chiapas Declaration

We are calling for genuine change.  We cannot accept that minorities and indigenous peoples are the most vulnerable members of our societies and that they remain excluded from decision-making that affects their lives and the future of our countries.

We affirm that minorities and indigenous peoples have the inalienable right to full and equal membership of our nations.  This right has to be translated into public policies that are sensitive to their situation, needs, and aspirations and accompanied by sufficient resources.  This requires the effective participation of minorities and indigenous peoples at all levels of government, and in particular in national and regional parliaments. All public policies should be submitted to minorities and indigenous peoples for prior consultation.

We further affirm the responsibility of political parties to promote the effective participation of minorities and indigenous peoples and address their concerns in their party programmes.

We urge every parliament, within the next two years, to:

1. Hold a special debate on the situation of minorities and indigenous peoples in their country; recognize the diversity in society; and adopt a Plan of Action to make the right to equal participation and non-discrimination a reality for minorities and indigenous peoples;

2. Adopt and implement laws to end discrimination and provide for the effective participation of minorities and indigenous peoples in decision-making, including in parliament, while taking care to secure the effective participation of minority and indigenous women.  Where such laws already exist, evaluate their effectiveness and make adjustments where necessary;

3. Ensure that the legislative process is transparent and that parliamentary records are made available immediately so that minority/indigenous peoples can monitor the activity of their representatives and in so doing hold them to account for their actions and omissions.

We call on the IPU to take the lead in collecting data on the representation of minorities and indigenous peoples in parliament, with due regard for privacy concerns and peoples’ right to choose their own identity.  We also call on the IPU to monitor the implementation of this Declaration, to facilitate networking among parliaments and to convene a follow-up meeting two years from now to discuss progress and set targets for future action.

As parliaments elaborate their Plans of Action, we recommend that, at a minimum, they:

1. Ensure that the right to free, prior and informed consent is observed in every step leading to the adoption of legislative and administrative measures affecting minorities and indigenous peoples; hold government to account for the implementation of such measures;

2. Require of government that all submissions to parliament of draft legislation and the national budget include an assessment of their impact on minorities and indigenous peoples;

3. Make regular use of plenary sessions in parliament and other parliamentary forums to discuss minority/indigenous matters in order to raise awareness and combat prejudice in society; organize awareness-raising sessions for all parliamentarians so as to increase their knowledge of minorities and indigenous peoples and the particular problems  they face; ensure that minority and indigenous issues are mainstreamed into parliamentary work, in particular at the committee level;

4. Allocate sufficient resources to establishing dialogue between minority/indigenous peoples and public institutions and to parliamentary committees on minority and indigenous issues so as to allow them to carry out effective outreach activities such as public hearings with minority and indigenous peoples;

5. Increase parliaments’ familiarity with work being done within the United Nations system so as to equip them to better hold governments to account for their international commitments, including the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals; more particularly, urge ratification of ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the implementation of the UN Declarations on the rights of minorities (1992) and indigenous peoples (2007); hold debates in parliament on the conclusions and recommendations made by the UN human rights treaty bodies and special mechanisms with regard to minority and indigenous peoples’ rights.

Adopted by consensus by the participants in the International parliamentary conference on ‘Parliaments, minorities and indigenous peoples: Effective participation in politics’, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas (Mexico), 3 November 2010

Download a printable version of the Chiapas Declaration

Identity-based parties vs. mainstream parties

The moderator started the session by pointing to the fact that the IPU-UNDP survey of parliaments suggested that 28% of States prohibited identity-based political parties and asked whether this was good. Most participants agreed that in a democracy, identity-based political parties should not be prohibited.

As to the question of whether or not identity-based parties were more effective than mainstream political parties for ensuring the representation of minorities and indigenous peoples, the following points of view were given: 

  • Identity-based parties are necessary (especially for indigenous peoples) as traditional parties have failed to take on their agenda and to defend them. Several indigenous participants found them to be more effective because in mainstream parties, the majority voice comes through and not the indigenous voice. Identity-based parties enable indigenous peoples to advance towards the construction of their rights from a position of power, to fight poverty and to maintain their identity. Traditional parties were all about creating divisions.
  • However, building coalitions with mainstream parties is important. Some participants spoke of a social pact to be concluded between indigenous peoples and mainstream parties. In this context, it is important to educate mainstream parties about indigenous culture.
  • Alliances with social movements and organisations are also important. It was through social movements that in Ecuador for example, indigenous issues came to the forefront and resulted in the adoption of progressive policies.
  • Participation in mainstream parties is sometimes seen as being more attractive, as it provided better career prospects.
  • One of the Belgian participants spoke in favour of mixed party lists as they provide a good opportunity for minorities to get elected. The success of one party’s initiative to include a minority candidate on its list encouraged other parties to follow suit. The example of Guatemala was mentioned where the draft electoral law provides for lists alternating men and women, Mayas and mestizos.

Are reserved seats an effective means of representation?

A first point made was that reserved seats alone are not sufficient. Minorities and indigenous peoples must participate in other State institutions, government, the judiciary, and more generally all spheres of life, especially in economic life. National policies and programmes enhancing minority and indigenous rights were essential, minority and indigenous interests had to be mainstreamed into State policies. Moreover, their voice should not only be heard at the national level, but also the regional and international levels.

The main argument in favour of reserved seats was that they guarantee that the voice of minorities and indigenous peoples is heard in parliament. Minority and indigenous MPs belonging to mainstream parties are not always able to defend minority and indigenous interests effectively, as they have to vote along party lines.

For reserved seats to be effective, the following must be ensured: 

  •  Holders of reserved seats must be able to address all issues before parliament, not only minority and indigenous issues. Minority and indigenous issues should be mainstreamed into parliamentary work.
  • Minorities and indigenous peoples must select their representatives themselves, not the general public or political parties.
  • Minorities and indigenous peoples should also be able to vote in the general elections, because this is a means of exerting influence on mainstream party politics.
  • It has to be made sure that holders of reserved seats were indeed defending minority and indigenous interests.
  • One had also to look into the decision-making bodies within parliaments (Bureau, political groups, presidency of committees) and to ensure that minority and indigenous MPs are represented there as well.

The main arguments against were the following:

  • Reserved seats can be used for further marginalisation. Other MPs use them to say that they cannot deal with minority and indigenous issues as they are matters to be raised by those holding reserved seats.
  • Can the system of reserved seats works in a country like Nigeria which has more than 200 ethnic groups?

Minority and indigenous women in decision-making

Panellists identified the following points as essential for overcoming the obstacles and building a democracy which would not be elitist and lack legitimacy because of the absence of women in general, and minority and indigenous women in particular:

  • The choice of electoral system; proportional systems were more favourable for women; there seemed to be a general support for quotas.
  • Participation in political parties, as they are key to promoting women’s issues. In this respect, Sophia Abdi Noor mentioned that in Kenya two political parties were led by women, but not supported by women. Women rather joined the big parties. It was important that women support women.
  • The promotion of women in all spheres of life (economic, cultural…) and not only politics is important. Support should be given to women entrepreneurs.
  • Numbers are crucial. Only if women reach a critical mass within parliaments will they be able to make a difference. One also has to see what is behind numbers. Available data says nothing about the percentage of minority and indigenous women among women MPs, about the interests who these women represent and whether or not they are supporting a transformative agenda. Geraldine Fraser (UNDP) referred to Nepal which was leading South-East Asia in terms of women’s representation in parliaments. There had been a decision to achieve this; first one needed the numbers and then content could be added. The IPU was invited to collect data on minority and indigenous women in parliaments.
  • Training of women in political skills; ensuring greater access of women to technology and knowledge networks such as Iknowpolitics.
  • The establishment of cross-party women’s caucuses and indigenous women’s organisations was also mentioned.

Minorities: perspectives on effective participation

Emilian Frâncu, MP, Vice-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights, Cults and National Minorities Issues (Romania)

  • Poverty is the main obstacle to the effective political participation of minorities. Poverty encourages vote buying and directs votes towards the big political parties. It is therefore necessary to help minorities organise themselves to ensure their representation. He warned, however, against “egoism” among such organisations, each of which claims to be the true representative of minorities.

Joe Frans, former MP, former Chair of the UN Working Group on People of African Descent (Sweden)

  • There are very subtle ways of ensuring that minorities were underrepresented. If one did not understand how discrimination determined the social fabric, one would not understand how minorities are excluded.
  • Minorities’ participation in political parties is crucial as it is within party structures that decisions are made. The challenge for minorities’ representatives once elected is “not to succumb to the niceties of parliament”. Minority MPs are the ones who have to produce a vision and to ensure that the discussion does not dry up.

Gay McDougall, United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues

  • Discrimination stands in the way of finding solutions. Minorities are disproportionally poor because of discrimination. However, if there is political will, there is an array of measures that could be taken to ensure effective representation.
  • A major obstacle is the non-recognition by States of minorities. The fiction in some States that there are no minorities makes it hard to overcome obstacles.

Indigenous peoples: perspectives on effective participation

Carlos Morales Morales, Chairperson of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP):

  • Indigenous peoples’ right to participate in decision-making has been recognized in various international legal instruments. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.
  • Indigenous peoples see decision-making as a collective process, as opposed to the modern style of parliamentary democracy which is individualistic and based on party lines. Most  indigenous people do not belong to a political party.

Wilton Littlechild, member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and former member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

  • When indigenous peoples win a court case, implementation of the court’s decision is very slow. However, when the government wins the case, implementation tends to be much faster.
  • Are people ready to accept indigenous peoples? Much depends on their understanding of indigenous peoples’ rights.

Rahui Ketene, member of parliament, New Zealand

  • The one-person one-vote system is an obstacle. Maori are used to collective and consensual decision-making processes.
  • Most Maori are not aware of the role of parliament and feel that it is not relevant to their lives. 40% of Maori population is under 18 and are not able to participate in the decision-making process.

Beatriz Paredes, member of the Mexican Chamber of Deputies

  • The effective participation of indigenous peoples is conditioned by power and the relationship between the State and indigenous communities.
  • The real power of indigenous peoples in politics is at the local or municipal level. Congress and Senate should also provide measures to ensure indigenous peoples’ participation at the national level.

What is effective political participation?

When indigenous peoples win respect, recognition and justice, the whole world wins

Chief Wilton Littlechild

 What is meant by effective political participation?

Truly effective participation enables minorities and indigenous peoples to promote and protect their identity and to ensure respect for the dignity of their people and communities.

Why is it important?

Participants stressed that:

  • Effective political participation is essential for the development of truly inclusive societies;
  • It is a right which underpins all other fundamental human rights;
  • It enables States to draw on a wider experience, to make better informed laws, to enhance the legitimacy of parliaments and to ensure sustainability by giving all people a sense of ownership;
  • It contributes to the prevention of conflict;
  • It helps to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (poverty reduction);
  • Minorities and indigenous peoples can and have made important contributions to framing international law and raising important issues at the national and international  levels, such as the right to spirituality, environmental issues (climate change) and the concept of sustainable development.

What is required for the realization of the right to effective political participation?

Participants highlighted that:

  • States must ensure respect for human rights in general, including for a minimum level of economic, social and cultural rights. Speakers referred to the existing comprehensive UN human rights framework which guarantees equality and non-discrimination and the right to participate in decision-making. States have therefore not only a moral but also a legal obligation to ensure implementation of those rights.
  • Minorities and indigenous peoples must be consulted on all issues affecting their lives and give their prior, free and informed consent.  Consent was highlighted as particularly important, for example with respect to land issues and control over natural resources.
  • A continuous, substantive and multi-directional dialogue (between minorities and indigenous peoples themselves, with the majority population and with the authorities) is needed. Minorities and indigenous peoples should have substantive influence so that there is a shared ownership of the decisions taken;  and avoid mere symbolic participation, which creates frustration. It is therefore essential that participation mechanisms are regularly evaluated and adapted to prevailing circumstances.  

What are the main obstacles?

– lack of political will;

– the vicious circle of discrimination and poverty (discrimination generating poverty and vice-versa);

– the underlying problem of racism. Participants pointed to the need to combat racism through law, robust institutions and political leadership.