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.

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

Photos from the opening ceremony



Teatro de la Cuidad, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico, 31 October 2010

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

Conference programme

Sunday 31 October 2010
7 p.m.  Opening ceremony

Monday 1 November
10.00 a.m. – 11.30 a.m: Effective participation in politics: a human right, a prerequisite for democracy and a means of preventing conflict

11.30 a.m – 1 p.m.: Perspectives on effective participation
Session 1: Minorities
Session 2: Indigenous peoples

3 p.m. – 4.30 p.m.: Legislative lessons learned

4.30 p.m. – 6 p.m.: The participation of minority and indigenous women in decision-making

Tuesday 2 November
10.00 a.m – 1 p.m.. Measures for enhancing effective participation
Session 1: Representatives and citizens 
Session 2: Political parties

3 p.m. – 6 p.m. 
Session 3: Inside Parliament
Session 4: Local, provincial, regional government and autonomous structures

Wednesday 3 November
Morning: Dialogue with indigenous leaders, Santiago el Pinar
4.30 p.m. – 6.30 p.m.: Building an agenda for effective political participation
6.30 p.m. – 8.30 p.m.: Closing ceremony

Practical information for delegates

1. Registration Desks. A Registration Desk will be set up in each hotel. Delegates should collect their conference badge and documents upon arrival at the hotel. There will also be a Registration Desk at the conference centre on Monday.

2. Opening ceremony on Sunday. The Opening ceremony will take place on Sunday 31 October from 19.00-21.00 at the Teatro de la Cuidad. Buses will leave from the hotels to the Opening ceremony at 18.30. Delegates will need their conference badge to enter the Opening ceremony. After the ceremony, there will be a cocktail for all participants. 

3. Transport to the conference centre on Monday and Tuesday. Buses will leave from the hotels to the conference centre at 09.00.

4. Dinner on Tuesday. On Tuesday evening, delegates are invited to dinner at the Las Pinchachas restaurant. Buses will leave from the hotels to the restaurant at 19.30.

5. Field visit on Wednesday. On Wednesday morning, delegates will meet with leaders of indigenous communities in Santiago de Pinar. Buses will leave from the hotels at 08.00. After the visit, delegates will go directly to the Congress of the State of Chiapas where the final sessions of the conference will take place.

6. Contacts. In case of problems, delegates can contact the following people:

English: Adriana Muñoz – 961 658 1331 or Juan Carlos Delarosa – 961 255 5168

Spanish: Juan Carlos Lopez – 961 255 6398 or Aramara Salgado – 961 112 9809

French: Adriana Muñoz – 961 658 1331

About the conference

The international parliamentary conference ‘Parliaments, minorities and indigenous peoples: Effective participation in politics’ will take place in Chiapas, Mexico, from 31 October to 3 November 2010.

The conference is organized jointly by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Mexican Congress of the Union and the Government of the State of Chiapas, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme; the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues; and the Minority Rights Group International.

Many situations around the world demonstrate that an adequate representation of minorities and indigenous peoples in policy- and decision-making by society is instrumental in breaking the cycle of discrimination and exclusion suffered by members of these groups, and their ensuing disproportionate levels of poverty and related impediments to the full enjoyment of many civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

Yet minorities and indigenous peoples often remain excluded from effective participation in decision-making, including at the level of the national parliament. The conference will focus on ways to overcome the challenges to effective participation of minorities and indigenous peoples in politics. Participants will include parliamentarians who self-identify as belonging to a minority or indigenous group; and members of parliamentary committees that deal with matters relevant to the theme of the Conference, in particular of committees on human rights, minority and indigenous questions, constitutional, legal and electoral affairs.

For more information: http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/chiapas10.htm