UN expert urges Panama to strengthen rights of indigenous people

Special Rapporteur James Anaya. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

29 July 2013 – Panama must continue to strengthen the rights of its indigenous people and ensure they are allowed to preserve their land and autonomy, a United Nations independent expert said today, raising concerns over the recent loss of large indigenous areas to third parties.

“Indigenous peoples have repeatedly expressed their concern to me of the presence of third parties in their territories, both in and out of the regions,” said the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya. “These parties include private settlers and agricultural, livestock and tourism, as well as miners and illegal loggers.”

Mr. Anaya stressed that one of the major concerns of the seven indigenous groups in Panama is the recognition and protection of their territories and natural resources.

“In Panama, the preservation and development of indigenous cultures is due in large part to the Government's acknowledgement that they are autonomous and have their own territory in the region,” he said, adding that the Government's official recognition of indigenous counties is an affirmation of indigenous peoples worldwide.

“These developments represent a significant foundation on which to continue building and strengthening the rights of the indigenous peoples of Panama,” Mr. Anaya said. “However, during the last week I have noticed that this foundation is in many ways fragile and precarious, and there are several threats to the rights of indigenous peoples threatening the progress made in previous years.”

Mr. Anaya urged the Government to cooperate with indigenous authorities to control and stop these invasions and privatization of land, including indigenous territories that are still waiting to be officially demarcated and recognized by the State.

“The development of large investment projects in indigenous territories of Panama has been the subject of numerous allegations of violations of the rights of indigenous peoples, especially in recent years,” he said. “This has resulted in the loss of large areas of indigenous lands and natural resources, as well as the fragmentation of control and decision making that indigenous authorities exert on their land.”

Mr. Anaya, who just finished a seven-day visit to the country, also emphasized the need to reinforce and implement policies in favour of the rights of indigenous peoples according to international standards. In particular, he stated that the creation of a national development plan for indigenous peoples could be a major advance if it is based on the aspirations of indigenous groups and if it has the necessary resources and budget to be implemented.

During his visit, Mr. Anaya met in Panama City with Government officials, as well as representatives of indigenous groups and civil society.

Special rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work. Mr. Anaya will present his findings and recommendations to the Council in 2014.

News Tracker: past stories on this issue

Indigenous culture, youth among key topics as UN permanent forum opens 12th session

Related Stories

In-depth Interviews