Indigenous peoples in Suriname win important case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Indigenous peoples in Suriname win important case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

On 28 January 2016, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights made public its judgment in the case of the Kaliña and Lokono Peoples v. Suriname. This case was first submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in January 2007 by the chiefs of the eight Kaliña and Lokono villages of the Lower Marowijne River and the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname (VIDS). The Court found Suriname responsible for multiple violations of the American Convention on Human Rights due to its failure to recognize and guarantee the legal personality and territorial rights of the Kaliña and Lokono, as well as active violations of those and other rights in connection with bauxite mining, grants of individual titles to non-indigenous persons and both the existence of and restrictions imposed in two nature reserves. The Court adopted a series of orders with associated deadlines to remedy these violations.

In general, the Court’s orders are positive and respond to many of the measures requested by the Kaliña and Lokono peoples. The Court, for instance, required that their territory be delimited, demarcated and titled, including the completion of formal processes to decide on restitution of lands affected by third parties and the nature reserves, all within 3 years. It additionally ordered that Suriname rehabilitate the “serious damage” caused by the bauxite mining. This mining was done by subsidiaries of Alcoa and BHP Billiton, without any participation by the Kaliña and Lokono and without any form of impact assessment, even though it was both within an indigenous territory and a nature reserve.  Recognizing that “repeated violations of the human rights” of indigenous peoples have been committed in Suriname, the Court also ordered the State to implement a series of “guarantees of non-repetition,” requiring the legal recognition of the territorial and other rights of all indigenous and tribal peoples in Suriname.

In connection with the restrictions imposed on the Kaliña and Lokono in the nature reserves, the Court concluded that “respect for the rights of the indigenous peoples may have a positive impact on environmental conservation” and therefore, “the rights of the indigenous peoples and international environmental laws should be understood as complementary, rather than exclusionary, rights.” It then ruled that “the criteria of a) effective participation, b) [at the least] access and use of their traditional territories, and c) the possibility of receiving benefits from conservation … are essential elements to achieve this compatibility….” With respect to “effective participation,” the Court explained that it is “necessary,” inter alia, to “seek agreements between the respective communities and the conservation agencies that establish the management, the commitments, the responsibilities, and the purposes of the area....” On access and use, it highlighted, inter alia, that “the traditional practices of the indigenous peoples that contribute to the sustainable care and protection of the environment should be maintained, protected and promoted. Thus, it is pertinent to support the indigenous peoples’ knowledge, institutions, practices, strategies and management plans related to conservation.”

The preceding is important insofar as it supports, as a matter of human rights law, that recognition of and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples are compatible with nature conservation and required in relation to protected areas and other environmental measures, including climate mitigation initiatives. This places an added burden on states to fully justify any proposed restrictions on the full exercise and enjoyment of these rights in protected areas or other environmental policies or projects. This presupposes that there is a formal and participatory process to assess these issues and that this process conforms to human rights norms. The Court’s associated order acknowledges that some restrictions could still be possible, but they cannot represent “an excessive obstacle to their rights.” The Court additionally highlighted Suriname’s obligations under Articles 8(j) and 10(c) of the Convention on Biological Diversity and related decisions of the Conference of Parties, essentially reading these provisions into its interpretation of the rights of the Kaliña and Lokono peoples. This both provides an enforceable human rights dimension to these provisions of environmental law as well as requires in principle that the often detailed decisions of the Conference of Parties be read into and incorporated into national laws pertaining to conservation pursuant to a state’s human rights obligations. The Court’s repeated citation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in some cases reading its provisions into its interpretation of articles of the American Convention, is also significant, and reinforces the view that various provisions of that instrument restate existing law.

FPP congratulates the Kaliña and Lokono peoples, their traditional authorities, and the VIDS for this important gain for indigenous peoples in Suriname and throughout the Americas. The judgment can be accessed at: