22, March, 2013

Recognition of Indigenous Justice in Latin America

Thanks to progressive courts and the pressure of organised indigenous and social movements, Latin American countries are at the forefront of formally acknowledging indigenous justice systems.

Throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the reality of indigenous communities has largely been one of political subjugation and economic exploitation. The aim of Latin American nation-states was largely to make indigenous communities disappear and integrate their members into the national culture. Indigenous movements and new trends in international law have demonstrated the failure of integration and assimilation policies, opening the way for policies that take into account multiculturalism and legal pluralism. Since the early 1990s, Latin American countries have been incorporating specific rights for indigenous communities into their legislation, which then paved the way for greater legal recognition of indigenous systems of justice. This Brief begins by outlining some of the features of indigenous governance systems in Latin America. It then analyses the ways Latin American countries have aimed to give legal recognition to these indigenous systems, including the many challenges that were encountered in the process. It concludes with lessons learned that may be useful for countries in other regions considering how best to address the challenge of legal recognition of indigenous justice systems.

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Key Lessons:

  • The recognition of indigenous authorities actually helps expose any authoritarian and violent practices within them. Official recognition means that indigenous authorities must become public actors and enter into a dialogue with the larger society and international communities. This allows for the incorporation of human rights standards into their practices without diminishing their culture or undermining their system of accountability.
  • Coordination between indigenous and ordinary justice in intercultural terms allows for the sharing of competencies, collaborating in the prosecution of crimes, and establishing channels for mutual understanding and mutual improvement through the exchange of best practices.

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