Human rights mission warns of 'militarization' of Costa Rica’s treatment of indigenous peoples

Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel warned about the Costa Rican government’s “militarization” of relations with its indigenous citizens during the presentation of preliminary findings of the 2013 International Observation Mission on Human Rights and Indigenous Autonomy Thursday morning.

Human rights observers from Colombia, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, France and the United States arrived in Costa Rica last Sunday, as part of a mission organized by the Service, Peace and Justice Foundation, headed by Pérez Esquivel. 

The mission met with representatives from Costa Rica’s eight indigenous peoples – the Bribrí, Cabécares, Malekus, Ngobes, Teribes, Bruncas and Chorotegas – in Salitre, outside the south-central canton of Buenos Aires on Monday.

“There is a militarized presence, they simply don’t use military uniforms,” said Pérez, referring Costa Rica’s lack of a standing army, “but the practices are military. … First we must consider that the police’s function has always been prevention and social order. When it becomes a force for repression, it changes its objectives. That is why we call it ‘militarization,’ ” Pérez Esquivel said.

The preliminary report observed that there was evidence of “persecution, threats and violent repression” by Costa Rican authorities against indigenous people, especially when suppressing land invasions.

Observers also highlighted indigenous autonomy as an “urgent” priority for Costa Rica’s indigenous peoples.

The Argentine criticized the government’s “lack of political will” to pass the Law of Autonomous Development, a bill first introduced 18 years ago. 

“An indigenous person without land is dead,” Sergio Rojas Oritz, president of the Association for Comprehensive Development in the Indigenous Territory of Salitre, told The Tico Times.

“Our priority is our land, our territorial security. If we have land, our people can thrive, develop our culture, language, identity, but we need territorial autonomy,” he asserted.

Human rights observers called the land disputes between Bribrí and non-indigenous landowners in Salitre one of the country’s “most problematic.” In January 2013, The Tico Times reported that three Bribrí men were injured during a land dispute with farmers in the southern region of the country. 

An April report by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights called on the Costa Rican legislature to approve the autonomy law, TV Channel 7 reported, citing the news agency EFE.

Observers also highlighted the right to consultation about large-scale development projects, the sale and development of land by non-indigenous peoples, corruption, a “deficit of justice” when indigenous peoples present legal complaints, intercultural education in indigenous languages, and a lack of access to infrastructure and public services.