Mexican gov’t ratifies rights law despite Indian objections


MEXICO CITY, Reuters

Mexico ratified landmark constitutional reforms on Thursday to bolster Indian rights as the indigenous communities that inspired the bill dismissed it as useless in saving the Chiapas peace process.

Michoacan’s state legislature ratified the set of amendments known as the indigenous rights law in a split vote, bringing the number of states approving it to 16, or a majority of Mexico’s 31 states as required to change the Constitution.

But ratification came over rejection by states with large Indian populations and opposition from indigenous leaders.

“This reform will be born dead,” the governors and leading lawmakers in heavily indigenous Chiapas and Oaxaca states said in a letter published in the Milenio newspaper on Thursday.

Only months ago the reforms were seen as crucial to ending an impasse with the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, who rose up in arms in 1994 to defend Indian rights.

But the rebel leadership and Indian supporters denounced the final version as a mockery of their demands and an obstacle to peace, arguing it gutted the original proposal for greater self-determination by Indian communities.

Chiapas, where more than 35 percent of the population is Indian, rejected the bill that was specifically designed to answer the Zapatista uprising.

Oaxaca, where more than half the residents are Indians, also rejected it. Together, the nine states that rejected the bill are home to more than half of Mexico’s nearly 10 million indigenous citizens. The remaining states had yet to vote.

“We have always said this was an aborted law that did not meet the expectations of the indigenous,” said federal deputy Hector Sanchez, head of the Congressional Indigenous Affairs Committee and a Zapoteca Indian from Oaxaca.

Community opposition renders the reforms illegitimate and should prompt the federal government to consider new, farther-reaching guarantees of Indian rights, activists said.

“The fact that the communities and state legislatures are rejecting this is a very solid argument to sensitize the federal Congress,” said Chiapas Gov. Pablo Salazar.

The constitutional reforms take effect once the states notify the national Congress of ratification. The executive branch then certifies the amendments.

Upon taking office last December, President Vicente Fox has seen his hopes dashed for a return to peace talks in Chiapas, stalled since 1996, despite key government concessions to the Zapatistas and a historic cross country tour by the rebel leadership to rally support for Indian rights. The rebels rejected the rights bill passed by the national Congress in April and returned to their Chiapas stronghold.

Supporters of the final bill, including leaders of Fox’s National Action Party, said it met indigenous demands for greater autonomy while preserving national sovereignty and individual rights under the Constitution.

Fox initially hailed the Congress’s passage of the bill as a major step toward peace, but his government later backed away from the final version, calling it a good faith step rather than a full answer to Indian demands.