The rights of indigenous communities

All previously colonized countries – now independent countries – today must address a similar situation: how to cooperate with indigenous communities, the ones descended from those that existed prior to colonization. Countries have to protect indigenous communities’ rights and integrity in a special way, because they are a special part of the population. The principal goal is for all rights to be enjoyed by indigenous communities at the same level as any other citizen.

In the case of Argentina, our Constitution addresses the indigenous communities by recognizing their “cultural and ethnic preexistence”; it likewise guarantees respect for their identity and, principally – among other many rights – recognizes their right to “possess the lands they traditionally occupy”. Our Constitution now seeks to give some sort of privilege or special protection to these communities by preserving their whole culture.

The current article differs from the previous references we had before 1994 regarding indigenous communities. The previous reference included a mandate to promote the conversion of indigenous communities to Catholicism.

Two different ideas lay behind each redaction. The present redaction sees the culture of indigenous communities as something to preserve as a whole, something seen as untouchable. The previous redaction, however, provides for the conversion to Catholicism, recognizing there is something to offer to indigenous communities, something about their culture that can be improved. Following this idea, we could come as far as to say that while the present philosophy leaves the indigenous cultures on their own, the previous one thought of a way to improve their culture.

This last idea, though it no longer is expressed within our Constitution, can nonetheless be connected to what a leader for the independence of Kanak communities – the indigenous community of New Caledonia – expressed. This man, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, said, “The return to tradition, it`s a myth … no people have ever had it. The search for identity, the model, is for me ahead of us, never backwards. … Our identity is ahead of us”. Moreover, Tjibaou added, “As long as talk remains private, it does not allow the community, the common consciousness, to take a position in its future”.

What this idea tries to convey is that the real respect for indigenous communities comes not only from recognizing the value of their cultures, but also from placing their cultures in the modern world, with the advantages and improvements it may offer for the human person.

This won´t be achieved if indigenous cultures are seen as untouchable. Their people have the same right to the benefits of the modern world, to human rights, to future and to evolve. True acknowledgment of them comes not from mere conservation – which oftentimes means confining them to the past – but of seeing them as equal in dignity with any other community, to evolve and improve and – above all – be seen as equal in terms of human rights.