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Human Rights Quarterly 22.4 (2000) 877-905

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Limiting Indigenous Autonomy in Chiapas, Mexico: The State Government's Use of Human Rights

Shannon Speed & Jane F. Collier

"Human Rights should not be another form of colonialism."

23 November 1999 La Jornada

I. Introduction

This headline in the 23 November 1999 edition of the Mexican newspaper La Jornada quoted Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 1 She was observing that human rights can no longer "be considered an imposition of Western values," because many national [End Page 877] governments, such as that of Indonesia, have established human rights commissions of their own. Now that international commissions can work cooperatively with national and local ones, they can avoid the appearance of imposing Western values on unwilling peoples. In this paper, we draw on Robinson's comments to frame our discussion of the current situation in the state of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, because we believe that her words both name a problem we see and suggest a possible solution. In Chiapas, where indigenous groups are trying to assert a measure of political autonomy, the state government appears to be using human rights as "another form of colonialism." But if indigenous groups in Chiapas obtain the political autonomy they need to develop their own understandings of human rights, the optimistic vision articulated by Mary Robinson, of cooperative efforts among groups with different histories and values, may yet prevail.

The state government of Chiapas appears "colonialist," not just in imposing a literal interpretation of human rights documents on indigenous peoples, but, more importantly, in using the discourse of human rights to justify intervening in the affairs of indigenous communities whose leaders happen to displease government officials. Just as colonial authorities in the past justified to intervening in the affairs of colonized peoples by claiming to eradicate practices that were "repugnant" to "civilized" sensibilities, so government officials in Chiapas are justifying their right to arrest indigenous leaders who (the government claims) have violated the human and constitutional rights of community members. 2 In this paper, we describe two recent legal cases from Chiapas to illustrate how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was designed to protect individuals from arbitrary punishments by their governments, can have the opposite effect of rendering indigenous leaders vulnerable to state sanctions.

Because we focus on how government officials in Chiapas are using the discourse of human rights, we will not address the question most often asked of anthropologists, which is whether the idea of human rights is universal. 3 Instead, we follow Richard Wilson in focusing on how rights [End Page 878] discourses are understood and used by people living in the world today: The intellectual efforts of those seeking to develop a framework for understanding the social life of rights would be better directed not towards foreclosing their ontological status, but instead by exploring their meaning and use. What is needed are more detailed studies of human rights according to the actions and intentions of social actors, within wider historical constraints of institutionalized power. 4

We will also avoid commenting on the supposed incompatibility between individual and collective rights. As anthropologists who sympathize with indigenous demands for autonomy, we are often asked how we can support the collective right of indigenous peoples to practice their customs when some customs violate the rights of individuals. Once again, we follow Wilson in focusing on "the actions and intentions of social actors." 5 Just as context determines whether or not the enforcement of human rights constitutes another form of colonialism, so context determines whether an assertion of collective indigenous rights should be treated as a violation of individual human rights. To supplement a theory of rights, we need a theory of contexts, as Boaventura De Souza Santos observes when he argues that we who care about social justice "must develop cross-cultural procedural criteria to distinguish progressive politics from regressive politics, empowerment from disempowerment, (and) emancipation from regulation." 6

We also follow theorists who observe that the apparent...


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