Last week, as part of the eleventh session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) organized a roundtable discussion on “Truth Commissions and Indigenous Peoples: Lessons Learned, Future Challenges.” The event also marked the launch of a resource book titled Strengthening Indigenous Rights Through Truth Commissions. Per the ICTJ, “The book summarizes the findings of an international conference on truth commissions and indigenous rights hosted by ICTJ in 2011. It makes concrete proposals to consider when setting up a truth commission focused on abuses committed against indigenous peoples.”
Moderating the discussion was Eduardo Gonzalez, director of the Truth and Memory Program at the ICTJ. Sparked by recent media coverage of the Canadian Indian residential school system, the ICTJ set out to determine whether truth commissions are useful for advancing the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly in Guatemala, Peru, and Paraguay. Today, there are truth commissions in Cote d’Ivoire, Nepal, and Brazil, as well as local efforts at truth-seeking taking place in Colombia, Mexico, and the United States.
The first speaker was Alcibiades Escué, coordinator of strategic planning at the Association of Indigenous Authorities of Northern Cauca. Mr. Escué said that from the 1980s through the present, the treatment of indigenous peoples is getting worse. He spoke of the extraction policies of the national government in indigenous territories occupied by guerrillas because of the mines located there. Territories have been consolidated and battalions camp out high in the mountains. There is an indigenous guard force consisting of young men and women who are oriented and accompanied by older people. Mr. Escué went on to speak about harmonic justice, the purpose of which is to promote self-determination for persons and communities so that they can best acquire life essentials. Within his community, this also includes searching for and registering victims. He concluded with talk of a house of thought, which not only provides training and education, but also aids in the reconstruction of historical memory. Another organizational process is the symbolic review of elders and spiritual authorities.
Next to speak was Ana Manuela Ochoa Arias, a lawyer for the National Authority of Indigenous Governments in Colombia. The indigenous peoples of Colombia live in the mountains of Santa Marta and comprise 30 percent of the Colombian population, which is about 1.3 million people. Sixty-five indigenous languages are spoken in the region, though Ms. Arias mentioned demographic fragility. Her speech focused on Law 1448, the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which was signed in June 2011 and pertains to historical reparations for the victims of the internal armed conflict that spanned 50 years. However, the law only applies to acts committed since January 1, 1985. So what is sought is transformational, rather than transitional, justice. Indigenous peoples have suffered cultural and economic damage, with specific damage caused to women and children. Ms. Arias maintains that the state has a legal obligation to such persons, each of whom individually had to make their own proposal.
The third speaker was Esther Attear, Passamaquoddy tribal member and lead staff person for the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. According to Ms. Attear, her people have witnessed a 95 percent decrease in population due to genocide, war, disease, and forced relocation. She discussed residential schools, where Indian children were sent after being taken away from their parents; the goal of such schools was to “kill the Indian, save the child.” It has now come to light that rampant abuse occurred in these schools, and approximately 1,000 children died as a result. The ultimate aim was the destruction of culture, including native dress and language. In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in response to “the alarmingly high number of Indian children being removed from their homes by both public and private agencies. The intent of Congress under ICWA was to ‘protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families’ (25 U.S.C. § 1902).” In Maine Wabanaki, state case workers received special training to deal with these cases, especially since in this culture, a child has three parents—mother, father, and tribe. Even so, there remained an invisible wall of the truth of genocide and genocidal policies. Decolonization also required truth and reconciliation; “white” people had to deal with their guilt and unpack a heritage of racism and genocide, while native people had to work through internalized oppression, lateral fighting, and a legacy of victimhood. In order to challenge the dominant narrative of white vs. native, both sides need to reach a common understanding, come up with recommendations for best practice, and share their stories in order to heal.
The last panelist was Alvaro Pop, Guatemalan independent expert and member of the UNPFII. He spoke about how in December 2011 in Colombia, indigenous people were victorious in having the Marmato municipal council “close the door to the efforts of Canadian companies to resettle the population and to destroy a town with 475 years of history in order to extract gold from the Marmato mountain using open pit mining in only 20 years.” He viewed this as an end of 400 years of darkness for the Mayas. He went on to say that indigenous peoples are survivors, having endured slavery, exploitation, and other such horrors. Now, the indigenous people want to rescue history, a mechanism to enrich identity, as the public school curriculum begins with colonization. A truth and reconciliation commission recognizes facts and awakens consciousness but was limited in Guatemala and didn’t have the future that was hoped for. It is now time to move beyond mourning and such a commission must contribute to the end of impunity by having specific mandates and including indigenous dialects and languages.
Mr. Gonzalez concluded the panel by talking about short- and long-term violations of rights—individual, collective, and earth. Reconciliation should not just be on an international level, but must be a nation-to-nation effort. He then opened up the floor for a brief Q&A session. The first person to speak was a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who sat on the Guatemalan Commission from 1997 to 1999. She said they were dealing with 600 massacres and that there were actually two commissions, one from the Catholic Church and one from the UN. She believes that truth commissions are just the beginning and that there is a need for different sponsors.
Closing out the program was an audience member who is part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which is court-mandated and focuses on children who were forced to go to residential schools, as discussed above. This school system was in place for more than 150 years, and children spent anywhere from 10 to 21 years at these schools. There are 80,000 survivors, and the last residential school closed in 1996. Though the experience is sadly widespread, one survivor’s testimony states, “We have been raped in every way—emotionally, physically, spiritually, culturally.” The commission plans to establish a national research center and hold an expert group meeting before the end of 2013.