GENEVA (7 July 2015) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, today urged the Government of Belize to ensure respect for the rights of the country’s Maya people to non-discrimination and traditional property.
“Under international human rights standards, indigenous peoples have the right to use, develop and also to control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership,” Ms. Tauli-Corpuz emphasized.
The independent expert’s call comes after the arrest of 12 Maya people and local leaders charged with unlawful imprisonment for their actions to remove a non-Maya individual, Rupert Myles, from their village lands. Mr. Myles was allegedly building a housing structure on ancient Maya ruins in the village of Santa Cruz, in violation of Maya customary law and apparently despite repeated requests for the removal of the structure.
“It appears as though the repeated requests to local police by Santa Cruz village leaders for assistance in removing the individual from the archaeological site within their village lands, went ignored,” the Special Rapporteur noted. “I am concerned by the inaction of the Government of Belize to assist Maya villagers to protect their property rights in the face of threats to those rights.”
Santa Cruz is one of some 39 Maya villages within the Toledo District of Belize, whose rights to traditional lands have been affirmed by the legal system in Belize, including most recently in April 2015 by the Caribbean Court of Justice, the highest court of appeals in the Belize legal system.
“The Maya village of Santa Cruz holds customary rights to its village lands which the government must respect and protect, as affirmed by a 2007 decision of the Supreme Court of Belize,” Ms. Tauli-Corpuz noted.
The Special Rapporteur urged the Government to establish a dialogue with Maya leadership and discuss outstanding issues of concern regarding this case, as well as the broader land tenure situation of the Maya people, in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect. “The current situation of conflict and mistrust cannot be allowed to persist,” she added.
The Santa Cruz incident - Background
According to reports, Mr. Myles, a non-Maya individual, has been constructing a house on the archaeological site of Uxbenka –an ancient Maya temple in the village of Santa Cruz– including the alleged bulldozing of a portion of the site to create a driveway. Mr. Myles has reported that he had followed procedures to live in the village.
On Saturday, 20 June, Santa Cruz villagers detained Mr. Myles when he interrupted a fajina (traditional meeting). Villagers allege that he stated that he had a firearm in his car and that he proceeded to approach his vehicle. He was released by the villagers later that day.
Among the Maya people arrested and charged with Mr. Myles’s unlawful imprisonment were the Alcalde (major) of Santa Cruz, Manuel Pop, and Cristina Coc, spokesperson for the Maya Leaders Alliance, an association which represents the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) composed of the elected Alcaldes from the 39 Maya villages within the Toledo District of Belize were also arrested and charged with unlawful imprisonment.
The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Philippines), is a human rights activist working on indigenous peoples’ rights. Her work for more than three decades has been focused on movement building among indigenous peoples and also among women, and she has worked as an educator-trainer on human rights, development and indigenous peoples in various contexts. She is a member of the Kankana-ey, Igorot indigenous peoples in the Cordillera Region in the Philippines. As Special Rapporteur, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
Check the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/