Supreme Court of Belize, Aurelio Cal, in his own behalf and on behalf of the Maya village of Santa Cruz & Others v. the Attorney General of Belize & Others, 18 October 2007, nos. 171 and 172/2007
Indigenous and tribal peoples
Direct resolution of a dispute on the basis of international law
Rights of indigenous and tribal peoples/ Land rights of indigenous peoples/ Direct resolution of a dispute on the basis of international law
In this case, the claimants wished to have the collective and individual rights of the Mayan people recognised over the lands they have traditionally occupied in south Belize.
The Court held that there is a customary land tenure system, that the interests of the Mayans to their land could be considered property rights and that the successive changes in the sovereignty of Belize has not altered or extinguished the pre-existing rights of Mayan inhabitants to their lands. After having held that these rights constitute property rights protected by the constitution of Belize, the Court looked at the State’s international obligations with respect to indigenous peoples and their rights to occupied lands.
In this respect, the Court stated that Belize had signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Charter of the Organisation of African States, which have been interpreted as requiring states to respect the rights of indigenous peoples over their land and resources.
The Court then relied on the authority of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which held that the right to property of indigenous peoples “has an autonomous meaning in international human rights law” and that “the property rights of indigenous peoples are not defined exclusively by entitlements within a state’s formal regime, but also include that indigenous communal property that arises from and is grounded in indigenous custom and tradition”.5
The Court then stated that international customary law and the general principles of international law require Belize to respect the rights of its indigenous people to their land and resources. The Court noted that:
“although Belize has yet to ratify Convention No. 169 of the International Labour Organization concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (ILO No. 169) of 7th June 1989, it is not in doubt that Article 14 of this instrument contains provisions concerning indigenous peoples right to land that resonate with the general”.6
The Court also referred to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and held:
“It is of some signal importance, in my view, that Belize voted in favour of this Declaration. And I find its Article 26 of especial resonance and relevance in the context of this case, reflecting, as I think it does, the growing consensus and the general principles of international law on indigenous peoples and their lands and resources”.7
The Court thus established that “ … the defendants are bound, in both domestic law in virtue of the Constitutional provisions that have been canvassed in this case, and international law, arising from Belize’s obligation thereunder, to respect the rights to and interests of the claimants as members of the indigenous Maya community, to their lands and resources which are the subject of this case.”8
1 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1969; Charter of the Organisation of African States, 1963.