Indigenous Rights Must Be Top Priority for John Kerry

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is due all people. These are the principles  I hope Secretary of State John Kerry remembers as he participates at the 43rd session of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States and meets with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina in early June.

Imagine, if you will, your grandparents and parents enduring decades of violence, terror and repression because they want to keep their land and homes for you and your children; because they want to keep their culture and traditions, which benefit the community and the environment, alive. Imagine having to endure tremendous abuse because there is nowhere to turn.

This is the case for the Maya, Xinka and Garifuna people in Guatemala who have struggled for decades against unsustainable development projects and a lack of protection for their human rights, rights of self-determination, and control over their lands, territories, and natural resources.

It is time for the United States to demonstrate that it is an international human rights leader and to make it clear it will not tolerate any country's continued human rights violations.

Specifically, I hope Secretary Kerry will encourage respect for human rights and the rule of law; support the development of democracy and peace; and seek international security measures that will keep the indigenous peoples of Guatemala safe.

Contrary to government propaganda, the indigenous leaders I have met with in my work with the Indian Law Resource Center are not against development. They want rights and to be able to inform the development process. The current practice of land allotments is not the solution. We know from U.S. history with Native Americans that taking land and displacing indigenous peoples leads to extreme poverty and cultural demise. We must not let history repeat itself in Guatemala.

Secretary Kerry has an opportunity to make change for indigenous peoples by acknowledging their concerns and supporting dialogues among their leaders and the government. No human beings should be brutally killed for protesting tax and electricity hikes and calling for constitutional and education reform. That's what we saw in Totonicapan just last year when eight Maya Q'iche people were killed and 30 were  wounded.

I urge Secretary Kerry to be an agent of change and to start a process that protects the rights and lives of indigenous peoples.

I hear you indigenous peoples of Guatemala, and I hope the Secretary of State will, too.

Armstrong Wiggins directs the Washington, D.C. office of the Indian Law Resource Center, a non-that provides legal assistance to indigenous peoples throughout the Americas who are working to protect their lands, resources, human rights, environment, and cultural heritage.

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Indigenous Rights Must Be Top Priority for John Kerry

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