Law Professor Earns United Nations Position
International lawyer and scholar S. James Anaya has been named the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
April 1, 2008

University of Arizona legal scholar S. James Anaya has received a United Nations appointment that calls on him to evaluate the conditions of the human rights and freedoms of indigenous people around the world.

Anaya has just been appointed as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples. The Human Rights Council confirmed his appointment last week.

Anaya, who is the James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy, is the second person to be named to the position since it was created in 2001. Anaya’s three-year appointment becomes effective May 1.

“Professor Anaya has been recognized as one of the world’s leading human rights advocates and legal scholars for many years,” said Robert A. Williams Jr., E. Thomas Sullivan professor of Law.

Anaya was also one of those who helped introduce the Indigenous Peoples Law & Policy Program, which advocates for human rights while providing students with a global understanding about the issues that indigenous people face.

Anaya, already an international lawyer and scholar known for his international advocacy for human rights for indigenous people, will continue teaching at the UA College of Law.

Williams also said “this new honor will create wonderful new opportunities for advancing indigenous peoples human rights and for the students who come here to learn from him.”

At the United Nations, Anaya will investigate human rights violations against indigenous people and provide recommendations to the U.N. and governments around the world to improve their situations.

Last year, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration essentially established a definition for what constitutes the human rights of indigenous peoples related to culture, identity, language, education, employment, health, social and economic development, among numerous other issues.

The declaration is crucially important for Anaya’s work, as it provides clear direction for the Special Rapporteur office, he said.

His efforts will be to help find solutions to the various problems that indigenous peoples face, which, Anaya said, stem from problems brought about by colonization of their respective communities.

In many cases, indigenous people were left out, and continue to be left out, of the governance structures developed around them. Indigenous peoples also often have little access or inadequate access to healthcare and other social services, but many are fighting to have their basic human rights recognized, Anaya said.

“A the core of the demands of the indigenous peoples is the basic desire to continue with their own institutions of self-governance, to live under conditions where they are able to make decisions about their futures,” Anaya said, “not just have those futures dictated to them.”

What must happen, Anaya said, is much broader than the legal realm. People in positions of power must recognize basic human rights and respect them, he said.

In his new position, Anaya will make trips to various countries to learn about the challenges indigenous people face and investigate governments about allegations of human rights violations against them. During such visits, Anaya will speak with indigenous peoples, national authorities and policy makers, international agency members and civil society organizations.

Anaya has been advocating for indigenous peoples rights for years.

Most recently, he helped support two Central American Maya villages – Conejo and Santa Cruz – that filed lawsuits in the Belize Supreme Court. Last year, the villages alleged that the government of Belize violated their customary land rights by approving logging and oil exploration on traditional lands.

The consolidated cases were heard in June and in October, the court ruled in favor of the villages.

Anaya and several of his students worked on the case, which is said to have been precedent-setting because, by affirming the land rights of indigenous peoples, the case could have a ripple effect around the world.

Anaya has also represented Western Shoshone groups and Carrie Dann in cases before the United States and international entities. Dann, who spoke at the UA College of Law last fall, is one of the most widely recognized advocates of indigenous peoples rights and has fought for decades for the protection of lands in California, Nevada, Utah and other states.

Continuing challenges obviously exist, but Anaya said that the world community and the United Nations are now looking “sympathetically” upon the demands of indigenous peoples and the solutions they present.

The solutions, he said, are “not simply the assimilation of indigenous community into the broader state and social structures that have engulfed them and grown up around them, but solutions that involve indigenous peoples’ continuing as distinct, culturally differentiated communities with their own institutions and with their own decision making capacities so they can enjoy a real condition of equality.”