Coulter et al. v. Brazil

Case No. 7615, Inter-Am. Comm'n H.R., Report No. 12/85, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.66, doc. 10 rev. 1 (1984-1985).
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In the 1960s, the Government of Brazil approved plans to permit the development of the Amazon region, as well as the exploitation of its natural resources, despite Constitutional provisions and national legislation guaranteeing indigenous communities in the region full possession of the lands they occupied and the resources found therein. The root of the violation was the construction of the trans-Amazonian highway BR-210 that went through the territory where the Indians lived.

According to the petitioners, the construction led to an influx of outsiders primarily interested in mineral extraction who began spreading infectious diseases among the Yanomami population and contributed to the degradation of their culture by introducing harmful social practices, including prostitution, into the indigenous population. Furthermore, the petitioners alleged that affected members of the Yanomami population did not have access to essential medical care. Due to a constitutional provision placing the Yanomami in the “guardianship” of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the petitioners, several international non-governmental organizations dedicated to the protection of Indian rights, felt compelled to petition the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Commission) for a resolution confirming violations of rights enshrined in the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man (American Declaration).

In particular, the petitioners claimed that the Government violated the Yanomami’s rights to life, liberty and security of the person (Art. I), equality under the law (Art. II), religious freedom and worship (Art. III), preservation of health and wellbeing (Art. XI), education (Art. XII), recognition of juridical personality and of civil rights (Art. XVII), and their right to property (Art. XXIII). In response, the Government maintained that various development projects under the direction of the FUNAI assisted the Indians without infringing on their civil or political rights, or harming their health and wellbeing.

The Commission found that the Government was responsible for failing to take timely and effective measures on behalf of the Yanomami Indians, resulting in the violation of human rights protected under the American Declaration, in particular, the rights to life, liberty, and personal security (Art. I), to residence and movement (Art. VIII), and to the preservation of health and well-being (Art. XI).

In its analysis, the Commission considered the collective rights of the ethnic population, as protected domestically in Article 3 of Law 6,001, as well as in Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Accordingly, the Commission recommended a continued effort by the Government to take preventive and curative measures to protect the lives and health of the Indians exposed to infectious or contagious diseases, as well as to establish a clearly demarcated Yanomami Indian Park.

"That for historical reasons and because of moral and humanitarian principles, special protection for indigenous populations constitutes a sacred commitment of the states;

That on various occasions this Commission has had to take cognizance of cases in which it has been verified that abuses of power committed by government officials responsible for administrative work in connection with indigenous communities have caused very serious injury to the human rights of their members;

That these offenses against human rights are all the more reprehensible considering that they are committed by agents of the public power and have as their victims persons or groups for whom the effective exercise of the means of defense established by the laws of the respective states is particularly difficult;..." (para. 8)

"It therefore recommended: That all the states pay very special attention to the suitable training of the officials who are to perform their work in contact with the aforementioned populations, awakening in those officials an awareness rights of indigenous persons, who should not be the object of discrimination of any kind." (para. 8.1)

"That the Organization of American States has established, as an action of priority for the member states, the preservation and strengthening of the cultural heritage of these ethnic groups and the struggle against the discrimination that invalidates their members' potential as human beings through the destruction of their cultural identity and individuality as indigenous peoples." (para. 9)