By Ethel Castellanos-Morales and Camilo Castillo-Sánchez –
Colombia is a country with a modern constitutional system that allows it to recognize its different ethnic groups and protect the diversity that is inherent in this multicultural society. Human rights are further protected by the fact that Colombia integrates several international human rights treaties in the constitution and they can be invoked in certain internal judicial processes. Nevertheless, the human rights situation for indigenous people is worrying and deserves attention. To shed light on this issue, the case of the Nasa people of the Northern Cauca region will be highlighted.
The lack of security in the Northern Cauca caused by the armed conflict between the guerrillas, the army, and the drug traffickers, affects the day-to-day life of the Nasa people. Exacerbated by its geographic isolation and absence of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, telephones, electricity and water services, it stands in stark contrast to the various reservoirs and hydroelectric dams seen throughout the rest of the Cauca Valley. In this challenging context, the Nasa are fighting to preserve their indigenous customs, language, beliefs and to live in peace in their resguardo (reservation), the land designated to them by the Constitution.
After more than twenty years struggling for their rights with limited success, the Nasa have decided to prioritize their constitutionally guaranteed right to education as a mechanism for preserving their culture. They are convinced that education is fundamental as it facilitates the transmission of their knowledge, language and identity to younger generations. To this end, they began legal actions designed to confront the government and force it to change its negligent attitude towards their community. The first stage included formal and informal petitions to the government. After more than ten years without an appropriate answer, the community moved forward and decided to present an Acción de Tutela, a constitutional and informal writ to protect the fundamental constitutional rights of all persons in Colombia.
The four central arguments of the suit are: (1) The Colombian government violates the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for charging tuition in primary education. (2) The Colombian government does not sponsor and support ethnic education by building schools, hiring prepared teachers, providing text books in the community language. (3) The Colombian government does not guarantee children’s access to schools through roads, transportation, and safety. (4) The Colombian government’s position is condemning this indigenous group to extinction by denying them the ability to transfer their ancestral knowledge to younger generations.
Two judicial reviews rejected the lawsuit on the grounds that other legal resources to demand these rights were never used. However, the plaintiffs argue that the judges ignored the community’s prior legal actions and never made a decision specifically about the key demand, the right to education for indigenous people as a survival mechanism. In April, the Constitutional Court selected the petition for an extraordinary review where it is awaiting a judgment. The question before the Court is whether the government violated the constitution by failing in its duty to avoid and correct violations of the Nasa people’s right to education and by extension their right to survive.
Ethel Castellanos-Morales and Camilo Castillo-Sánchez are Ph. D. students and legal advisors of the Nasa people.