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Joenia Wapixana, winner, 2018 UN Human Rights Prize

19 December 2018

Joenia Wapixana is a woman of firsts. She was the first in her family to go to university, to study law; in 1997, she became Brazil’s first indigenous lawyer; and in 2018, she became Brazil’s first indigenous congresswoman.

After taking the “Raposa Serra do Sol” land dispute to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Wapixana became the first indigenous lawyer to argue and win a case before the Supreme Court of Brazil.

She wanted to end the violence against indigenous peoples in Northern Brazil who had been persecuted for decades because they would not cede their ancestral lands to agribusiness companies.

“In 2008 we had a positive result. In 2009, this was confirmed. So this verdict was relevant to end many threats and violations of human rights,” Wapixana said. “Without land, we have no education, no health, no environment, and no economy. That’s why indigenous land demarcation is a human rights issue as well.”

“Either you fight for the human rights of your people or you lose everything,” she added.

Wapixana was one of four individuals or organizations awarded the prestigious UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights this year. Previous winners have included Eleanor Roosevelt, martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Denis Mukwege, Malala Yusafzai, Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

This is the tenth award of the prize, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over 300 nominations were received this year.