Annual Economic and Social Rights Lecture: Professor James Anaya

On Friday April 8th, S. James Anaya, Regents’ Professor and the James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, delivered the 2016 Annual Economic and Social Rights Lecture. His lecture was entitled “A Human Rights Advocate’s Guide to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.” Anaya discussed cultural rights in the context of fulfilling the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), shedding a positive light on the document.

Anaya argues that the SDGs should not be read in isolation but rather as one document written and existing within a larger normative system of United Nations institutions, including international human rights standards. He also discussed how the SDGs document joins economic development with sustainability, and creates space for conversations surrounding the occupation and use of indigenous lands, and how the rights of indigenous peoples should figure in the development process.

Anaya framed this discussion around the case of the Awas Tigni v. Nicaragua in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and his serendipitous experience of being involved in advocacy for the Awas Tigni people. The Nicaraguan government attempted to develop the land that the Awas Tigni community occupied on the grounds that they didn’t own the land and had no “legal” title to prove ownership. With this, the court found that Nicaragua violated the right to property of the Awas Tigni people under Article 21 of the American Convention on Human Rights. Anaya explained that, for indigenous groups, property includes the right of people to enjoy their traditional lands and resources both as individuals and as a community. “By the fact of their very existence, [the court found] they have the right to live freely in their own territory,” Anaya commented. In the end, Nicaragua granted a land title to the Awas Tigni community and implemented the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ decision.

In thinking about this example, it is important to note how the same language used to deny indigenous people’s their rights under Article 21 was also used to affirm their rights in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ decision. Clearly, words in UN documents can be interpreted in a dynamic way based on the context in which they are applied. The United Nations SDGs may not be legally binding, but they do constitute a political commitment of UN member states to normative human rights standards, especially those embedded in economic and social rights. Speaking about the potential of the SDGs, Anaya identified this document as “an invitation to dialogue within the framing of human rights and the rights of vulnerable groups, including indigenous peoples.”
Anaya concluded his lecture by advocating that the international community take up this “invitation to dialogue” to implement follow-up measures to the SDGs. Through advocacy, “…voices are heard in a progressive read of the SDGs” that haven’t been heard before, and we can take steps to draft more inclusive documents and policies. “You’re not always going to win, but you at least have an opportunity to have those conversations,” Anaya concluded, challenging the pessimism of international human rights actors that often accompanies UN declarations. In closing, Anaya asked and answered: “Do we let pessimism take over, or do we fill the glass? I say we fill it.”