Some Essential Not Simply "New," Approaches to Human Rights


This issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly is, in a sense, a "double issue". One set of articles reviews the progressive entry of indigenous peoples into a formal international arena - the United Nations. The second set focuses on a single social movement in southern Mexico's State of Chiapas. Yet the themes are related. As Dalee Sambo, this issue's Guest Editor, notes, the events in Mexico led to a qualitatively different response - an Accord which considered indigenous rights, broadly defined to include their land and culture as well as physical abuses. This is a radical departure from other, more oppressive responses of conventional frameworks in which indigenous/State "dialogue" occurs.

It's true. World history, including much from Mexico (as well as the US), is rife with examples of greater violence and unfulfilled promises. Likewise for current events. In Bosnia continuous "ethnic cleansing", sniper attacks, and duplicitous agreements ridicule NATO and UN efforts at a negotiated peace. To the South, in the two small African states of Burundi and Rawanda, machetes and small arms have killed more people in a few months than the initial impact of the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Though we know of no clear, proven relationship between the relatively peaceful outcome of events in Chiapas and Mexico's regular involvement in the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, it would be heartening to demonstrate that there was some link to evolving international standards. Whatever the explanation, the events in Chiapas dramatically illustrate at least the potential outcome of efforts still underway within the institutional framework of the United Nations.

They also do more. For most people, the events in Bosnia, Burundi, and Rawanda evoke sympathy but are written off as socalled "ethnic conflicts." And there ends most analysis. By contrast, the articles on Chiapas illustrate the value of long-term social science research and invite, indeed challenge, others to provide similar analysis and awareness to the range of complex problems which underlie movements through out the world, but are easily glossed over as "peasant revolts" or "Indian uprisings." Ideally this sort of awareness and understanding - drawn from qualitative social science analysis and translated for broad education as well as policy research and development - will appear will before people are pushed to take up arms, and will also suggest culturally sensitive and regular means to manage the inevitable conflicts of any multi-cultural world.

The seven articles and analyses of the conditions which led up to and followed the Zapatistas' New Year's Eve march into San Cristobal also illustrate a new role for anthropologists and other social scientists. Until now many observers regarded most Third World ethnic groups and indigenous people - whether Serbs, Pathans, Somalis, Tzotzils or Yanomami - as "small isolated societies," and thus objects of interest and curiosity but of little global significance. Now, with the shroud of the Cold War no longer shadowing these societies, issues of ethnicity and ethnic conflict vie for center stage in the world's political arena. They will probably remain there for the foreseeable future. As these ethnic issues shift the world's focus, many scholars, journalists, analysts, and policy makers find themselves forced to deal with new sectors of society and unknown actors with unfamiliar beliefs, perceptions, and needs.

These peoples have always been the research subjects of much anthropology. Unfortunately, most of these subjects also suffer widespread abuse and oppression. This evokes much sympathy, but often results in impressionistic and poorly documented analyses. By contrast, the examples of long-term social science research, combined with the innovative use of such new technologies as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), illustrated by the articles in the CSQ enable the rigorous interpretation and analysis necessary to document abuses and defend the human rights of peoples whose voices were, until recently, rarely heard and, if so, poorly understood.

So, in addition to their topical value, the various articles on Chiapas were solicited for this CSQ to illustrate and encourage essential methodology for human rights work in support of indigenous peoples and ethnic groups. As that methodology evolves we can expect the differences in interpretation and emphasis illustrated here. They are not contradictions but simply different critical perspectives which reveal the complexity of most social problems. Each sheds light from a different direction, and thus produces a clearer image. However, imperfect that image, we now have a far better basis for evaluation, and an example for future analysis.

As one means to an even clearer picture, we can hope for greater indigenous input into the process, both in terms of analysis and methods. That, fortunately, is simply a matter of time. Indigenous people are already becoming their own human rights monitors. Recently and rapidly, indigenous groups worldwide are acquiring the technical tools - computers and computer based mapping and monitoring systems - which allow them to document and defend their rights to land and resources. These impressive initiatives will be profited in an upcoming CSQ. In the meantime, the sort of "local knowledge" illustrated here provides a much clearer understanding of the nature and genesis of human rights problems of indigenous and ethnic peoples. If the future is not to resemble Bosnia, Rawanda, or South Los Angeles more of this work must be encouraged.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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