Guyana not living up to Amerindian rights obligations
-UNHRC statement

Stabroek News
April 15, 2000

Guyana is not living up to its human rights obligations with respect to Amerindian communities an Amerindian Peoples Association (APA) release quoted a recent United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) statement as saying.

According to the APA the statement came after the UNHRC reviewed Guyana's second periodic report on the measures it has taken to implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Meanwhile the APA is reiterating its call to government "to sit down with the freely chosen representatives of Amerindians and engage in meaningful dialogue about how to resolve issues" that affect their livelihood.

Guyana was represented at the March 31 meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, by a government delegation led by Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon and responded to questions posed by the 18-member committee.

The committee, noting that the report by government was 12 years overdue expressed regret "at the delay in amending the Amerindian act and was concerned that members of the indigenous Amerindian minority did not enjoy fully the right to equality before the law. It called on government to ensure that there were effective measures of protection to enable members of indigenous Amerindian communities to participate in decisions that affected them and to enforce their rights under the Covenant."

According to the APA, the remarks concur with recent opinions delivered by the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR) of 1997.

The UNCERD, for instance, stated that "Amerindians could not readily participate in decisions affecting their lands, culture and traditions and the allocation of natural resources. Amerindian life was regulated by the Amerindian Act, legislation dating from colonial times and designed to protect the indigenous peoples from exploitation. The act gave the government the power to determine who was an Amerindian and what was an Amerindian community, to appoint Amerindian leaders and, where necessary to annul decisions made by Amerindian councils. That legislation was too restrictive." The UNCESCR characterised the Amerindian Act as "overly restrictive and disturbing" and questioned how it was possible.

When asked at the recent Geneva UNHRC meeting about steps being taken to update the Amerindian Act and the difficulties experienced by leaders of that ethnic group in exercising their rights, Dr Luncheon pointed out that the updating of the act was part and parcel of the constitutional reform process. He explained that within that process, a constitutional commission to address the national position of the indigenous people had been established so that the issue would be given its due and proper position.

The comments by the UN organs, the APA said are consistent with the repeated statements of Amerindians that there are serious problems with Guyanese law and policy as they relate to Amerindians. This is especially true for Amerindian land rights which have not been fully recognised and are frequently violated. In short the APA said that the laws and policies are incompatible with Guyana's international human rights obligations.

Responding to the question on the concept of the preservation of Amerindian culture and rights, particularly ancestral lands, Dr Luncheon said that it "was an ill-defined term in Guyana's legal terminology. The issue required discourse, understanding and a willingness to understand the problems of the Amerindian people. There were 50 Amerindian communities to be demarcated in some of the more distant parts of the country".

"Amerindian leaders", he continued "were, therefore invited to allow demarcation to be carried out based on the currently known boundaries. Once those areas were demarcated, then discussions with the Amerindian community on extensions and other criteria would take place to discuss how the 1960 boundaries could be extended to accommodate the 1990's reality."

He said that a considerable number of the Amerindian communities had acceded to those suggestions but the issue was a political one. Some people, he said had equated the failure to resolve the demarcation issue in the 1990's as the failure of the present administration to be responsive to the needs of the Amerindian community. As a result of such accusations, certain Amerindian communities had refused to have talks with the current administration and refused to accept any proposal on demarcation based on the 1960's reality.