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Easter Islanders Seek U.N. Intervention in Dispute with Chile

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 21 2011 (IPS) - “We are a peaceful people. We don’t like war. We don’t want police and military on our land,” said Erity Teave, an indigenous activist from the Chilean-administered Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.

With tears welling up in her eyes, but still trying to manage a graceful smile, she asked: “Do you think the U.N. can do something to protect my people?”

Teave, an indigenous activist who is currently visiting the United States, told IPS that her people were looking for urgent international action to protect them from what she described as “terrorism” by the authorities in Santiago.

“Our land is our mother,” she said in a brief encounter before heading to a meeting of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues earlier this month. “We call our land ‘Kainga,’ which means womb. We don’t believe in buying or selling it.”

Established in 2000 by the U.N. Economic and Social Council, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is an advisory body, with a mandate to discuss indigenous peoples’ issues related to social development, culture, the environment, education, and human rights.

Worldwide, there are about 370 million indigenous people whose right to exercise sovereignty over their lands and protect their ways of life is no longer a question that the vast majority of U.N. member states consider controversial.

In 2007, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution endorsing the historic Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that native peoples anywhere in the world have the right to protect their lands, resources, and culture.

The U.N. treaty on biological diversity also recognises the rights of the indigenous peoples to protect their lands and belief systems. It recognises that indigenous knowledge is an important tool in global efforts aimed at reversing the loss of species.

Indigenous peoples’ knowledge about how to preserve plant and animals species cannot be ignored because they are the “custodians of nature”, according to Ahmed Djoghlaf, the chief of the Secretariat of the U.N. treaty on biological diversity. “They know…they live in close proximity to nature.”

But despite such international resolutions to protect indigenous peoples’ rights, there appears to be a degree of callousness on the part of the international community towards the people of Easter Island and indigenous communities in many parts of the world.

Easter Island, which was annexed by Chile in 1888, is one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. Located about 2,000 miles from the Chile in the Pacific Ocean, it is the most isolated island on the planet.

Published reports suggest that more than 20 people were injured as a result of excessive use of force by the Chilean police in early December when the natives protested against what they described as “illegal” occupation of their lands by Chileans.

Pictures and videos placed on YouTube’s website show dozens of native men and women soaked in blood as a result of excessive use of force by the Chilean police.

Witnesses say the police fired pellets on native Rapa Nui people who had managed to repossess some of the buildings last year. Rapa Nui people assert that the buildings belonged to their elders and were taken by outsiders illegally.

The island, with a population of about 4,000, is a major tourist attraction due to its giant carved stone heads, known as Moais. The natives are protesting against the Chilean plans to increase immigration and tourism.

A leading international rights advocacy group described the current tension between the natives and Chilean security forces as “unprecedented” and “of a very serious nature” at the Hanga Roa Hotel on Easter Island.

The group said in a statement sent to IPS that a strong police contingent, under the orders of the attorney general, have surrounded the premises and are blocking anyone from leaving or entering. This started on Jan. 13.

In a statement, Oscar Vargas, a former prosecutor on the island, and an attorney for the Hitorangi clan, said: “This is a forced fast, as a result of an order made without authority.”

According to Vargas, the alleged offences are non-violent and under Chilean law are punishable only by a fine. “In this case,” he said, “by the virtue of the law of Easter Island, the natural owners of the dispute land cannot be charged.”

Marisol Hito, a spokeswoman for the Hitorangi clan, made an urgent appeal to the international community this week to pressure the Chilean government to stop abuses against the people of Rapa Nui.

Repeated attempts by IPS to interview officials at the Chilean mission to the U.N. were not successful. One diplomat called back, but refused to comment on the subject.

Like many other member states, Chile is signatory to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

A U.N. staff member at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues told IPS that he was not authorised to speak to the press.

However, in a recent statement, the U.N. Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, said he was gravely concerned about the actions of the Chilean security forces and urged Santiago to make every effort to conduct a dialogue in good faith with the representatives of the Rapa Nui people.

For her part, Teave said her people on the island were not going to give up on their right to be independent from the Chilean domination and control and that she and other leaders would approach the U.N. rights bodies.

“We want to have our own government. That is our right. We have our own laws,” she said. “They (the Chilean government) don’t understand our needs.”

She and other Easter Islanders said they were planning to take their case to the Geneva-based U.N. Committee against Racial Discrimination (CERD).

The CERD is responsible for monitoring global compliance with the 1969 Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, an international treaty that has been ratified by an overwhelming majority of the U.N. member states.

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