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Advancing Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Mexico

In Mexico, 15% of the population identifies itself as indigenous. In the southern state of Oaxaca alone, 56% of people consider themselves indigenous, divided in around 16 ethnic and linguistic groups, in addition to a small population of African descent.

Indigenous peoples from the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico © OHCHR photo / Jon IzaguirreDuring her recent visit to Oaxaca, UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay said that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “inspires and motivates movement towards a world in which the basic human rights of indigenous peoples are respected.”

However, she pointed out that “it is one thing to have proclaimed the Declaration, and it is quite another to see it implemented.” She added that “while some progress has been made towards its implementation, much remains to be done.”

"Indigenous women suffer two types of discrimination, as indigenous people and as women," Pillay said. “Just as there is still a long path in the wider, non-indigenous societies to achieve gender equality,” she stressed, “indigenous peoples also need to give women a more prominent role.”

In her inspiring intervention she urged Mexico's indigenous leaders "to renew your commitment to improve the situation of women and promote their political participation and their leadership."

Pillay stressed that the efforts of indigenous women in the struggle for indigenous peoples’ rights needed to be acknowledged, and “indigenous peoples must fight the resistance against them taking positions of power even if it comes from inside.”

Under the Constitution, indigenous peoples in Mexico have the rights to self-determination, which includes, among others, the right to autonomy, education, infrastructure and no-discrimination.

However, each Mexican state has its own constitution and can establish a new legislation. In some cases, as regards indigenous peoples, the local legislation has limited the provisions recognized in the national constitution.

As a consequence, the protection of indigenous people’s rights varies greatly from state to state. While some political entities have established a wide range of policies aiming at the promotion of indigenous peoples’ rights, others have not developed an institutional framework.

Mexican indigenous peoples continue to suffer discrimination in all spheres of public life. Many, especially women, receive arbitrary or disproportionate sentences in criminal courts. Political participation remains extremely marginal.

According to several indigenous organizations, the main problems suffered by indigenous peoples in Mexico are linked to land and territories, natural resources, administration of justice, internal displacement, bilingual education, language, migration and constitutional reforms.

They are also more likely to live in poverty than non-indigenous. During his recent visit to Mexico, Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, warned that 19.5 million Mexicans, approximately 18 % of the population, are food insecure, an overwhelming majority of them in the rural areas, with a disproportionate number of indigenous peoples among them.

Pillay said that the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples remained a key priority for her Office. “In particular, we promote and use the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as our framework for action and to further the advancement and protection of indigenous people’s rights.”

Pillay’s official visit to Mexico will end on 9 July. She is scheduled to discuss rights issues with the President Felipe Calderón, lawmakers and the Ombudsman at federal and local level, as well as with non-governmental organizations.

7 July 2011