Secretary General’s Diary – Wednesday

Today we travel.  Buses take us up the mountain side to the site of an original zoque settlement which eventually gave birth to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the State capital.  By 10 o’clock the museum is packed with indigenous leaders and representatives from Chiapas, along with the MPs who have joined us at the conference.  Within minutes the Governor of the State arrives and we sit down for a discussion.

The atmosphere in the room is electric.  The questions addressed to our indigenous hosts show an enormous interest in finding out about their ways of doing things, the challenges they face and the solutions they have found.

The answers they give surprise many in the audience.  Consultation is the rule, at many different levels and in many formal and informal settings.  The indigenous representatives explain that things are changing in the State; little by little their voices are being heard and solutions adapted to their needs and aspirations.

At the end of the exchange, the State Governor explains how he has acted to address the needs of the indigenous communities; how the publication of a UNDP Human Development Report on Mexico motivated him to change course in the State and to implement the Millennium Development Goals, focussing in particular on the indigenous peoples.  Chiapas must be just about the only State in the world where the MDGs have been written in to the State Constitution.

In the afternoon we move to the Congress of the State of Chiapas.  We talk about what we have learnt so far before debating and adopting an outcome document.  The text is brief and to the point.  It invites parliaments to take precise steps to institute change and to meet two years from now to measure progress and set new targets.  What we are doing is laying the foundations for a global campaign to push parliaments to ensure more effective representation of minorities and indigenous peoples in politics.

By the time the closing ceremony comes around it is already past nine o’clock at night.  Not unusual, I am told, in a town and State where many important meetings continue to the early hours of the morning.

After signing the Chiapas Declaration we congregate in the lobby of the Congress to unveil a plaque commemorating the event.  It is placed on the wall next to the Statue of Benito Juarez, the first indigenous President of Mexico; a highly symbolic way of concluding a conference that has sought to advance the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples everywhere.

Anders B. Johnsson

Secretary General

Secretary General’s Diary – Tuesday

The day has been quite a marathon; eight hours of non-stop political discussion.  We have been helped by very able moderators, heard some quite exceptional presentations and been part of a very lively debate.  In short, it has been hugely interesting and helpful.

The objective has been to identify what measures we can take to enhance effective participation.  Are reserved seats an effective way of ensuring representation? Can such representation be effective?  The answer to the first question is a strong affirmative, while the answer to the second is less clear.  Reserved seats can be a good start, but often fall far short of expectations.

Are identity-based political parties a better alternative to “mainstream” political parties?  In many instances the answer to that question is a clear yes.  Most of the statements from the floor recognize that “mainstream” parties by and large are doing a very poor job at addressing issues relevant to minorities and indigenous peoples.

Do dedicated parliamentary committees provide a useful avenue to promote the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples?  There are numerous examples where that is the case; there are also potential drawbacks.  Carrying on business as usual is not the way forward.  Each parliament can make much better use of its rules and procedures to address these issues in its daily work.

We conclude with a very interesting debate around the theme of representation at the local or sub-national level.  Are minorities and indigenous peoples’ issues dealt with more effectively at this level?  Apparently they are.  The closer understanding and more direct contact make for more effective participation.

With nightfall comes an opportunity to relax in good company, enjoy the Mexican cuisine and Chiapas culture.  We are taken to a restaurant overlooking the city and spend the final hours of the day enjoying the good company and fascinating conversation of our hosts and participants from near and far.

Anders B. Johnsson

Secretary General

Secretary General’s Diary – Monday

I cannot be free if others are not free.”  Croatian Parliamentarian Marim Jurjovic’s words capture the feelings in the room.  The United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall, says it differently: “Inclusion is important for society as a whole, not just for those who are or have been excluded.”

The meeting rooms are filled and the debates are rich.  The day starts with a series of key-note addresses on the subject of “effective participation”: what it means and why it is important.  The debate moves on to identify obstacles to realizing the right to such participation.

Beatrice Paredes, leader of the PRI faction in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies is emphatic.  It is an issue of power, she says.  In order to be able to exercise power, indigenous people need to own their land and have access to information and education.

We remain together over lunch to pursue the discussion and when we return an hour later it is to examine the involvement of minorities and indigenous peoples in the law-making process and the gender aspects of exclusion and discrimination.

In the middle of that debate I have to leave to join the Governor of the State of Chiapas, Juan Sabines Gutiérrez, and the United Nations Representative in Mexico, Magdy Martínez Soliman, at the State University (Unicach) where they are presenting the findings of the latest human development report on indigenous peoples in Mexico.

The report paints a sombre picture.  Indigenous peoples are more likely than other citizens to be poor, malnourished and sick and their life expectancy is significantly shorter.  At the same time, UNDP reports that Chiapas is making greater headway than any other State in Mexico in addressing these issues.  Chiapas is able to “get more life out of life”, says Magdy Martínez.  Partly this is due to the very considerable resources that are set aside to benefit directly the indigenous communities.

Another part of the answer is linked to the efforts under way to ensure greater and more effective participation by indigenous peoples in political and similar decision-making processes; which bring us back to the essence of the conference.

Greater inclusion in politics has a positive impact on the social and economic well-being of minorities and indigenous peoples; it decreases their marginalisation, poverty and exclusion.  Ensuring effective participation in parliament and political processes is an exercise in democracy; but it is also a fundamental component of development.

Anders B. Johnsson

Secretary General

Secretary General’s Diary – Sunday

The inaugural ceremony says it all; this is a conference of minorities and indigenous peoples and about their participation in political life.

The theatre hall is packed.  Members of parliament from all corners of the globe sit together with representatives from indigenous communities dressed in their traditional costumes.  A spectacularly colourful diversity that illustrates better than anything what this conference is all about: inclusiveness and tolerance.

That message is echoed in all the speeches.  The Mayor of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the State capital that is receiving us, tells us that his is a city that is built by indigenous people.  The United Nations Resident Representative (from UNDP) informs us of progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals and how important political participation is to the achievement of those goals.

The State Governor’s representative shows how actions they have taken in consultation with indigenous peoples have led to results.  The representative of the Senate and Congress of Mexico underscores the same message: Mexico is working to ensure the effective participation of its indigenous people in the political processes.

Speaking on behalf of the IPU, my own message invites the participants to reflect on seven areas that require action: collecting data on the representation of minorities and indigenous communities; extending formal recognition and defining their legal status; adopting special measures to increase their presence in parliament; building awareness and support by political parties; providing resources for parliaments to address issues relating to minorities and indigenous peoples; increasing parliamentary oversight and support for implementation; and working to create and maintain public support for action.

My conviction, I conclude, is that stronger parliaments lead to stronger democracies. This in turn requires greater political tolerance, more inclusive parliaments and political will and determination to effect change.

More than anything, however, this is about you and me, every one of us, and the responsibility we share to build more inclusive societies together.

Anders B. Johnsson

Secretary General

Parliaments, minorities and indigenous peoples

The effective participation of minorities and indigenous peoples in politics is essential to democracy. Democracy requires that the voice of all citizens be heard equally without distinction.  Discrimination and exclusion weaken democracy.  They plant the seeds of conflict in society.

Parliament is the national forum for mediating competing interests in society.  It is precisely in parliament where fundamental issues confronting society can be resolved through dialogue.  Parliament has a vested interest in ensuring that all citizens can participate equally in politics. Where there are cases of exclusion, it must correct them.

The conference which opens in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, today aims at advancing the agenda of democracy by identifying ways in which parliaments everywhere can be more open to the participation of minorities and indigenous peoples.  It will examine how the double discrimination faced by women belonging minorities and indigenous peoples can be overcome.  It will also look at how parliaments and their members can more effectively promote and defend the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples.

Members of parliament from some forty countries from all regions will be debating these issues during the next three days in the company experts, UN officials and others who have experiences to share.  The conference takes place in Chiapas, a State in Southern Mexico where a very large proportion of the population is indigenous.

During these three days, my colleagues and I will reach out to the global parliamentary community with news from this conference in the hope that many more will take inspiration from, what we are sure, will be very rich debates.  You are all invited to provide input and feedback through this blog.

Anders B. Johnsson

IPU Secretary General