Alejandro Fuentes

Changing Interpretations to Accommodate Indigenous Peoples’ Cultural Differences

Senior Researcher at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, Alejandro Fuentes, has published a new article that focuses on how the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ approach protects indigenous peoples’ human rights.

Fuentes has worked at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for seven years. He is also a lecturer in the International Human Rights Law Master’s programme at Lund University. An interest in different regional systems brought him to Europe where he further increased his knowledge of the European Union’s integration model. From there, he began to look at regional systems in more depth before his focus moved to minorities.

His latest article, published in the International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, volume 23, issue 1 (Brill Publishers) is titled Judicial Interpretation and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights to Lands, Participation and Consultation. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ Approach.

“I was very curious about the way that the Court applied interpretation tools and methods to human rights in order to accommodate minorities,” says Fuentes. “That is more or less what I tried to do in this article. Not only focus on the specific protection of indigenous people, but on the method of interpretation in order to shed light on how regional courts work and how they could provide innovative answers through the same human rights standards without having to create new entitlements specifically targeting minorities.”

He concludes that the Inter-American Court has expanded the protection of specific rights in order to “safeguard indigenous people’s cultural identity” and give them access to a dignified life. This can be seen in regard to the right to property (Article 21 ACHR), which – due to the special relationship that indigenous people can have with their traditional lands – is interpreted as an instrumental additional guarantee for the protection of  their right to life (Article 4(1) ACHR), or – in other words – their right to a life in dignity.

The importance of good faith and cultural sensitiveness were also issues that he honed in on in his research. “Both states and indigenous peoples’ representatives need to be open to the proposal of the other party in good faith, giving room for discussion, and must be willing to change their positions in that mutual negotiation process. For example, if a road can be constructed 100km further north, without major inconveniences, why not do it there? Why should it be within their traditional lands and territories, where there will be a major impact on indigenous people’s cultural life?” he asks.

Going forward, Fuentes will continue to explore how the Court approaches different elements of interpretation when having to provide an answer to specific vulnerable groups. “We must also consider whether or not – and to what extent – they can provide an answer, because it’s not necessarily the case that judicial bodies will always be able to do so when political dialogue is unable or unwilling to accommodate cultural differences,” he says.