Indigenous World 2020: The Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRC)

The Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRS) comprises two human rights bodies: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or the Commission) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court). Both bodies work to promote and protect human rights in the Americas. The IACHR is composed of seven independent members and two independent Special Rapporteurs and has its headquarters in Washington D.C., USA; the Court is composed of seven judges and has its headquarters in San José, Costa Rica.

In 1990, the IACHR created the Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, with the aim of bringing attention to the hemisphere’s Indigenous Peoples and of strengthening, promoting and systematising the work the Commission itself is doing in this regard. To this end, the IACHR draws on different tools, including thematic studies and reports; petitions and cases, including friendly settlements; precautionary measures; thematic hearings; confidential requests for information from states; and press releases. The Rapporteurship also participates in conferences and seminars organised by the states, academic institutions and civil society. The Inter-American Court, in contrast, has responsibility for issuing advisory opinions and passing judgments, among other things.

Thematic reports

During 2019, the IACHR published a report on the “Situation of Human Rights of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Pan-Amazon Region”. In this document, the Commission provides background to the complex transformations affecting the Pan-Amazon Region, where the human rights of Indigenous communities are being negatively affected by regulations, public policies, expanding natural resource extraction and infrastructure megaprojects.

The IACHR describes how oil and gas exploitation, mining, logging, use of genetic resources, dam, oil and gas pipeline construction, fishing and industrial-scale agriculture, tourism and the establishment of protected areas and national parks are all taking place without prior consultation, jeopardising the physical and cultural survival of Indigenous communities.

The first chapter of the report focuses on the international standards, approaches and principles that states need to take into account when drafting laws, programmes and policies in order to protect the human rights of the Indigenous and tribal peoples’ of the Pan-Amazon Region. The second chapter provides information on the primary effects of development projects on the region’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. The third section considers the main human rights impacts on the region’s Indigenous Peoples while the fourth chapter explains the particular situation of Indigenous Peoples living in voluntary isolation or initial contact. The fifth and final chapter makes a number of recommendations to the region’s states.

Public hearings

There were 16 thematic hearings on Indigenous Peoples’ rights over the course of the four periods of sessions held during 2019.

171st period of sessions[1]

During this period, the IACHR addressed the “Human rights situation of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil”. In this hearing, the petitioners noted the different human rights violations faced by Indigenous Peoples, including the entry of outsiders onto their territories; the lack of delimitation, demarcation and titling of Indigenous lands; the persecution of and violence against human rights defenders and leaders; and a lack of protection of Indigenous Peoples in voluntary isolation. They also provided information on the institutional changes being made by the new government, noting that these were affecting the interests of Indigenous Peoples. For its part, the state emphasised the government’s commitment to the situation of Indigenous Peoples, indicating that it was adopting different measures to provide targeted attention to these groups. The IAHCR repeated its concerns regarding the structural issues affecting Indigenous communities, such as the demarcation of Indigenous lands; the “temporal framework” thesis; the institutional weakening of FUNAI; and the threats, attacks and harassment of Indigenous leaders and defenders.

A hearing also took place on the “Situation of Indigenous defenders in Colombia”. At this hearing, the petitioning organisations expressed their concern at the violence being experienced by Indigenous rights defenders and the systemic discrimination against Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. They also reported that defenders were being constantly subjected to intimidation by drug traffickers and paramilitaries and that many of them were ending up dead. They highlighted the mass displacements of communities due to disputes over territories and aggression by these groups. For its part, the state noted that it was working on a differential approach to individual and collective protection, and that there was a specific protocol for evaluating the risks facing the Indigenous population. They also reported that they had identified five factors affecting ethnic peoples, namely: intensified competition for dominance and control of different criminal economies, including illegal mining; the slow progress in stabilising the spaces in which the FARC guerrilla used to exert their influence; the expansion of illicit crop growing; the persistent activity of illegal armed groups; and the diversification of the interests of organised crime. The IACHR stated that, given the magnitude of the problem, it was essential to identify the aggressors and take direct and effective action. It also proposed establishing channels of communication between the state and civil society to provide Indigenous Peoples with guarantees of their life and cultural preservation.

172nd period of sessions[2]

The IACHR held a hearing on the “Situation of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast”. The petitioning organisations reported that although 316 territories had been demarcated to the benefit of the Caribbean Coast’s Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples between 2007 and 2016, this had been without completing their regularisation (saneamiento). This situation had resulted in conflicts between communities and settlers, most of them former soldiers, who had moved onto their territories and begun to extract the natural resources with the state’s acquiescence. They also indicated that the communities were facing serious violence which, in turn, had culminated in a food crisis for those who are unable to access the land. In terms of the right to self-determination, they noted that the state had interfered in the communities by creating governments parallel to their own traditional forms of organisation. For its part, the IACHR expressed its concern at the information received and requested further detail on the human rights violations described. The Nicaraguan state did not attend this public hearing.

During this period, the IACHR also considered the “Protection and Guarantee of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Brazil”. In this hearing, the petitioners denounced the fact that the Brazilian state was adopting measures resulting in a serious deterioration in Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Among other things, they noted that FUNAI no longer came under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice but had passed to the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights; that measures were being implemented to fragment the legal framework on the environment; that powers to demarcate Indigenous lands had been transferred from FUNAI to the Ministry of Agriculture; and that rates of deforestation and invasion of Indigenous lands had increased. The above had all resulted in serious threats being made to environmental and Indigenous defenders. The state responded that the aim of its work was to provide Indigenous Peoples with the best government possible and that public policy had been produced in constant dialogue with the Indigenous Peoples, who were demanding development. It added that the measures adopted all formed part of the legal administrative process. For its part, in addition to repeating the importance of respecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights, including the right to prior consultation, the IACHR noted the importance of ensuring that agreements between companies and Indigenous Peoples were reached under conditions of equality. Finally, the IACHR stated its concern at the situation of violence affecting this country’s Indigenous rights defenders.

During this period of sessions, the IACHR also considered the situation of the “Human Rights of the Indigenous Peoples in Isolation in the Peruvian Amazon”. The petitioners reported that a decree was in place in Peru declaring the departments of Cusco and Ucayali a State Territorial Reserve for Kugapakori, Nahua, Nanti and other ethnic groups in voluntary isolation and initial contact (RTKNN), and that this guaranteed their territorial integrity. However, they noted that an Additional Categorisation Study was now being produced that would grant the status of Indigenous Reserve, thus opening up the possibility of companies being allowed in to exploit the territory’s natural resources. They also noted that the Nahua people were being seriously affected by mercury contamination. For their part, the state’s representatives commented on the efforts being made from an intersectoral perspective to protect these peoples’ rights, and they reported on the existence of commissions and investigations underway to resolve the problems of mercury pollution. The IACHR indicated that the object of the hearing was being addressed in the Report on Indigenous Peoples of the Pan-Amazon Region and emphasised the importance of providing a culturally appropriate response to the health problems described.

During this period of sessions, the IACHR also addressed the issue of “Criminalisation and Indigenous Justice in the Americas”. According to information from the petitioners, although a number of the region’s countries have constitutional laws or have signed international human rights treaties that recognise customary justice, the Indigenous authorities are being criminalised for exercising their laws. The petitioners reported on the situation in countries such as Bolivia, Chile and Peru. For its part, the IACHR noted the importance of the issues raised in the hearing and emphasised the need to promote an intercultural dialogue between the state and Indigenous Peoples.

173rd period of sessions[3]

The IACHR held a hearing on “Indigenous Women and Girls Assassinated and Disappeared in Canada”. The organisations addressed the conclusions of the Report “Reclaiming Power and Justice” produced by the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada, and highlighted that this National Inquiry had concluded that the state was complicit in a “planned genocide” based on race, identity and gender. The state’s representatives repeated that Canada had recognised the conclusions and accepted the recommendations of the report and reiterated their commitment to defend and guarantee the rights of Indigenous women and girls. Finally, the IACHR recognised the important work of the National Inquiry, underlined the importance of giving Indigenous women and girls a voice in the search for truth and justice, and called on the state to implement concrete measures to correct this situation and follow-up the National Inquiry’s recommendations.

In addition, during this period the IACHR addressed “Environmental Protection in the Amazon and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil”. The participating organisations reported that increased deforestation and fires in the Amazon during 2019 had violated Indigenous Peoples’ enjoyment of their human rights, including some uncontacted groups. They also noted their deep concern at the entry of outsiders onto Indigenous territories; the effects of production, construction and extraction activities; as well as the obstacles placed in the path of environmental defenders. They also noted that there had been a 62% increase in deforestation during 2019 and that 236 Indigenous lands had been removed from the management system of the National Institute for Settlement and Agrarian Reform (INCRA). For its part, the state noted its government’s commitment to containing the fires in the Amazon, and highlighted the actions being taken to control illegal activities on the territories along with their commitment to protect Indigenous Peoples and defend human rights. The IACHR emphasised the fundamental role of the Amazon region for the enjoyment of human rights and noted the importance of establishing joint strategies between states that share the Amazon basin in order to combat the threats facing it and to guarantee the right to a healthy environment.

174th period of sessions[4]

The IACHR held a hearing on “Violations of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Mexico”. Civil society organisations submitted information on how the Mexican state’s current agrarian system, in place since the early 20th century, was violating Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their lands, territories and natural resources, as well as their right to self-determination. They added that the institutions responsible for arbitrating Indigenous Peoples’ efforts to gain recognition of their right to their territories were suffering a number of problems, including: a lack of finances; corruption of officials; and the lack of a rights-based approach to their actions and decisions. For its part, the state noted that Congress was currently debating a reform of agrarian legislation and that a dialogue and consultation process had commenced on Indigenous reform in 2019. It also recognised the continuing existence of challenges with regard to the agrarian system, as well as the need to intensify the efforts in order to comply with international human rights standards. The state’s delegation also extended an invitation to the IACHR to visit and provide technical support to the participatory processes mentioned in the hearing. The IACHR stated its willingness to provide technical support to these processes.

During this period, the IACHR also addressed the “Violence and Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Cauca Department of Colombia”. In the hearing, the petitioning organisations referred to the rising number of murders and threats against ancestral authorities and Indigenous guards being made by organised armed groups in revenge for their organisational processes to claim their rights. They noted that Cauca department was the second most militarised zone in Colombia and stated their concern at the military deployment announced by the state. They also noted a lack of compliance with different points of the Peace Agreement, including the ethnic chapter and the guarantees proposed in the context of the voluntary substitution of illegal crops. For its part, the state referred to the roll-out of a comprehensive strategy to address the situation in Cauca, which would have two dimensions: a social aspect and a security aspect. For its part, the IACHR stated that the exponential increase in these acts of violence demanded an urgent response from the state. It also highlighted the fundamental work being done by the Indigenous guards to protect their territories and urged the state to coordinate joint actions with the communities to determine the necessary protective measures to guarantee their safety and personal integrity.

Precautionary measures

Two sets of precautionary measures were granted in 2019 with reference to Indigenous Peoples and their members, and one with reference to a defender of the human rights of these peoples.

  • MC 458/19 - Members of the Guyraroká of the Guarani Kaiowá Indigenous People, Brazil[5]:

In this case, the IACHR decided to grant precautionary measures because the applicants were at risk, having been subjected to a series of threats, harassment and acts of violence, allegedly at the hands of landowners due to a conflict over land ownership.

The Commission asked the Brazilian state to take the necessary measures to protect the rights to life and personal integrity of the members of the Guyraroká community and to avoid acts of violence by third parties; to adopt culturally appropriate protection measures to protect the life and personal integrity of the Guyraroká community, implementing, for example actions aimed at improving their access to healthcare, food and clean drinking water; to agree measures to be adopted with the beneficiary people and their representatives; and to report on the actions implemented with the aim of investigating the acts that gave rise to the adoption of this precautionary measure in the first place and thus avoid its repetition.

  • MC 487/19 - Quelvin Otoniel Jimenez Villalta, Guatemala[6]:

In this case, the IACHR granted precautionary measures due to the threats being received by the beneficiary because of his work to defend Indigenous rights from a mining company.

  • MC 181/19 – Indigenous Peoples from the Pemón ethnic group of San Francisco de Yuruaní or “Kumaracapay” community et al, Venezuela[7]:

The IACHR decided to grant precautionary measures because the beneficiaries were at risk due to their involvement in events that took place on 22 and 23 February 2019 on the Venezuela/Brazil border in relation to the entry of humanitarian aid.

Petitions and cases

Friendly settlements

Two friendly settlement reports were published during 2019:

  • Friendly settlement report, Petition 214-06 Antonio Jacinto López Martínez Mexico[8]:

According to the report, the IACHR received a petition on 8 September 2006 alleging that the Mexican state had violated the political rights, judicial guarantees, legal protection and ongoing development of Antonio Jacinto Lopez, an Indigenous Triqui leader, and his family.

During 2019, the IACHR finally declared that the agreement had been substantially implemented and partially fulfilled and they therefore indicated that they would continue to monitor its implementation until fully complete.[9]

  • Friendly settlement report, Case 13,408 Alberto Patishtán Gómez Mexico[10]:

This case was related to Mexico’s international responsibility for violations committed by state agents on 19 June 2000 in Chiapas state. The alleged violations included violation of due criminal process and a lack of adequate medical diagnosis and treatment for Alberto Patishtán Gómez, a member of the Indigenous Tzotzil community who was at that time a political activist from the region’s Indigenous communities.

During 2019, the IACHR finally declared that the agreement had now been fully implemented.

Admissibility report

There were no admissibility reports published on the IACHR website during 2019.

Merits reports

There were no merits reports published on the IACHR website during 2019.[11]

Judgments of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

There were no judgments published on the IA Court’s website during 2019.

Advisory opinions of the Inter-American Court

There were no advisory opinions published on the IA Court’s website during 2019.

Elsy Curihuinca Neira is a lawyer with a Master’s in International Human Rights Law and a diploma in the recognition, strengthening and legal protection of Indigenous children’s and adolescents’ rights. During 2018 and 2019, she was a specialist within the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[12]

Notes and references

[1] Section written on the basis of IACHR, Press Release, IACHR Concludes 171st Period of Sessions, 20 February 2019. Annex to the Press Release for this Period of Sessions, available at:

[2] Section written on the basis of IACHR, Press Release, IACHR Completes 172nd Period of Sessions, 29 May 2019. There is no Annex to the Press Release for this Period of Sessions. Other public hearings held during this period related to Indigenous rights were as follows: “Implementation of Precautionary Measures with a differential and collective ethnic approach in Colombia” and “Criminalisation of indigenous rights defenders and the extractive industry in the US”.

[3] Section written on the basis of IACHR, Press Release, IACHR Completes 173rd Period of Sessions, 04 October 2019. Annex to the Press Release for this Period of Sessions, available at: Other public hearings held during this period and related to Indigenous rights were as follows: “Protection of indigenous communities, children and adolescents and human rights defenders affected by environmental contamination in Peru”; “Climate change and the economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of women, children and adolescents, Indigenous Peoples and rural communities” and “Threats and murders of social leaders in Colombia”.

[4] Section written on the basis of IACHR, Press Release, IACHR Completes 174th Period of Sessions, 20 November 2019. IACHR. Annex to the Press Release for this Period of sessions, available at: Another public hearing held during this period and related to Indigenous rights was: “Indigenous Peoples’ right to water and food in Guatemala”.

[5] IACHR, Resolution 47/19, available at: [in Spanish only]

[6] IACHR, Resolution 33/19, available at:

[7] IACHR, Resolution 181/19, available at:

[8] Report No. 35/19 of 08 April 2019, available at:

[9] IACHR, Press Release, IACHR Publishes Report No. 35/19 Concerning Petition 1014-06, Antonio Jacinto López, Mexico, 12 April 2019.

[10] Report No. 43/19 of 30 April 2019. Available at:

[11] In accordance with the provisions of Article 50 of the American Convention on Human Rights, when the IACHR approves a report it is confidential and only notified to the parties involved (state and petitioner). However, in accordance with the provisions of Article 51(3) of the same instrument, approved reports may subsequently be published, if the IACHR so decides. Information available at:

[12] The information compiled in this document is the sole responsibility of the author and does not form work undertaken in the context of her role within the IACHR.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here

Tags: Global governance



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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