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OAS Works on Set of Rights for Indigenous People

The Organization of American States is working to create a set of rights for indigenous people throughout the hemisphere. OAS diplomats have been joined in Washington by indigenous leaders from throughout the Americas to discuss and debate the proposed document.

It is a sight not often seen in the conservatively-styled halls of the OAS building: scores of people in colorful traditional native outfits, many with ponytails and a few with feather headdresses, all mingling with diplomats clad in gray suits that looked positively drab by comparison.

Peruvian Ambassador Eduardo Ferrero Costa heads the working group for the proposed "American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." He said indigenous populations existed in the Americas before colonization, and have been subjected to some of the worst treatment in the history of the hemisphere. The ambassador said indigenous people need and deserve a set of rights that recognize the past, while looking toward a better future.

Mr. Ferrero Costa said, these are people with their own characteristics and who maintain their traditions and customs within the countries in which they live. The ambassador says they legitimately want their rights to be recognized in a special way, with regard to preserving their languages, customs and beliefs. Mr. Ferrero Costa says there is an international effort being made to protect the rights of indigenous people, just as other initiatives have focused on the rights of children, women and other groups.

The OAS is considering a set of rights for indigenous people originally proposed in 1997 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The draft calls for an ambitious set of goals, including eradicating poverty, preserving indigenous languages and cultures, protecting spiritual freedom, and establishing mechanisms of self-governance.

For Tomas Alarcon, a member of the Aymara indigenous ethnic group of the Andes, economic concerns are paramount. Mr. Alarcon said "we demand a solution to the problem of poverty," adding that indigenous people are the poorest of the poor in the Americas. He said one way to overcome this would be to ensure indigenous people are given rights over natural resources found in the regions where they live.

Others who journeyed to the OAS meeting say cultural affairs matter most. Kelly Curry belongs to the Iroquois Confederacy, comprised of six indigenous groups in the northeastern United States and parts of Canada. Ms. Curry said native people are not looking for special treatment.

She said they just want to preserve a traditional way of life. "I would not say [this is] about setting [indigenous people] apart. I think this is a recognition that there are still people that prefer not to live in the 'fast lane.' So, it is not that they want to be treated 'special' or differently, but they want to be left alone to practice the ways that feel right to them. And we need space in order to do that," she said.

Debate on the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is scheduled to continue through Wednesday.