Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples: The Latin American Context

By Tzay, Jose Francisco Cali | UN Chronicle, September 2007 | Go to article overview
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Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples: The Latin American Context

Tzay, Jose Francisco Cali, UN Chronicle

In discussing the issue of discrimination against indigenous peoples, it is tempting to paraphrase a preambular paragraph of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and say that at all periods of history, discrimination, in its many forms, has inflicted great losses on humanity. (1)

There is a clear contradiction in the assumptions made by some lawyers and theologians in their fight for "good treatment" and the "humanity" of indigenous peoples at the beginning of the colonial period: the indigenous people should be treated well so that the colonists' king, god and faith could be imposed on them; the indigenous people had to pay taxes, provide food and work in mineral mining and pearl harvesting, and if they did not do so, a "just war" would be waged against them. (2) At times, the conquistadores arrived and waged the "just war" first and only subsequently imposed their divine and material conditions.

The declarations of independence of the continent's republics referred to the equality of rights of all inhabitants but did not bring about an improvement in the situation of indigenous peoples; in some cases the presence, existence and rights of indigenous people were recognized de jure but their de facto recognition was denied. All the independence struggles were marked by the efforts to establish equality of rights and put an end to discrimination.


In 1923, the great Cayuga chief Deskaheh, representative of the Iroquois people in Ontario (Canada) and holder of a passport issued by the authorities of his people, came to Geneva to the headquarters of the League of Nations. Acting on a mandate from the Government of the Federation of the Six Nations of the Grand River, he was carrying a letter containing an appeal for justice that was addressed to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations. The main goal of his mission was to ask for the Federation that he represented to be admitted as a member of the League of Nations and to request compliance with a treaty signed in 1784 by the authorities of his people and ratified by King George III of Great Britain. Great chief Deskaheh spent over a year in Europe but was not officially received by any League of Nations official and his requests were never discussed. Great chief Deskaheh is considered to be one of the main precursors of the current fight of indigenous peoples at the international level. (3)

In response to the terrible atrocities experienced during the Second World War by various groups of individuals, due to their political affiliation, sexual orientation or religious belief, or simply due to physical or mental handicaps, the Charter of the United Nations includes the principle (which was later included as a right in other instruments) that no distinction should be made "as to race, sex, language or religion".

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, establishing the right to non-discrimination in article 2, states: "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) and the international human rights covenants (1966) were significant landmarks in the fight against discrimination. The following instruments are also worthy of mention in connection with their respective areas of application: ILO Convention No. 111 concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation (1958) and the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960).

The following instruments refer specifically to non-discrimination against indigenous peoples: ILO Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (1989); the references in the declarations and programmes of action adopted at the World Conferences (Rio de Janeiro (1992), Vienna (1993), Cairo (1994), Copenhagen (1995), Beijing (1995), Istanbul (1996), Rome (1996), Durban (2001) and Johannesburg (2002)); (4) General Recommendation No.

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