An historic debt settled: recognition of indigenous rights in El Salvador

In El Salvador 80,000 people or almost six percent of the population is indigenous and historically has suffered discrimination and oppression. In June this year, however, the Legislative Assembly voted to reform the country’s Constitution offering recognition of its indigenous peoples and a commitment to the adoption of policies to safeguard their ethnic and cultural identities.

The Head of the UN Human Rights Regional Office for Central America, Carmen Rosa Villa Quintana, welcomed the vote by the Assembly. “The approval of this constitutional reform settles a historical debt owed to indigenous peoples to strengthen their identity, protect their institutions, their participation in the processes of decision-making, and ensure that they are consulted on policies and programs that affect them,” she said.

The UN Human Rights Office has been actively promoting the rights of indigenous peoples in El Salvador for some years. The Regional Office study, “Assessment on the situation of indigenous people’s human rights in Central America”, achieved with the assistance of the Norwegian Government, and involving a lengthy dialogue with many of the indigenous groups of Central America, is now a reference for all those working for the rights of indigenous peoples.

This historic agreement to reform the Constitution follows on from the visit of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people and recommendations made following El Salvador’s submission to the Human Rights Council’s human rights assessment mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review.

Following his visit to the country in 2012, the then UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, recalled the 30,000 people who died in the “La Matanza” massacre of 1932, saying the terror of those killings lived on in the collective memory of the country’s indigenous. Anaya called on the Government of EL Salvador to act to rescue the ancient culture of its indigenous peoples. 

The current Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, says the vote by the Legislative Assembly is a crucial step in recognition of indigenous rights and reversing historical suppression.

Both Corpuz and Villa Quintana have urged the Assembly to go further and underwrite the constitutional reform by ratifying the International Labour Organisation Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. The Convention gives governments prime responsibility for developing and coordinating systems to protect the rights and well-being of indigenous and tribal peoples.

15 September 2014

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