By M.A. Student Nicole Ibrahim

On Wednesday, March 29th, Professor Yuri Mantilla spoke to the M.A. in Human Rights students about human rights on an international level, specifically pertaining to the rights of indigenous peoples in Central and South America. Originally from Bolivia, Professor Mantilla is a renowned expert in the areas of international law, human rights, and diplomacy. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen School of Law, a LL.M from American University Washington College of Law, an M.A. in International Human Rights from Trinity International University, and an LL.B from Taras Shevchenko
National University in Ukraine. He previously worked at Focus on the Family and Family Research Council and he currently teaches law courses at Liberty University School of Law.

Professor Mantilla’s presentation centered around the idea that “international human rights transcends political ideologies and positive law” while also using both politics and positive law to defend human rights. For Christians, the understanding the human person is made in the image of God (Imago Dei) is what makes human rights inalienable and unchangeable. Yet, in a pluralistic world, to truly defend human rights an integrative jurisprudential approach is needed. Human rights may stem from the concept of Imago Dei and the natural law, but the legal positive approach is also important to make treaties and other international laws to protect those natural rights. 

With that foundation, Mantilla then shifted the focus to talking specifically about the rights of indigenous peoples in Central and South America. He cited statistics showing that countries such as Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Guatemala have a very high percentage of the population coming from indigenous groups, but they are underrepresented in all facets of the government and civil society. In many of these countries, there is a racist mindset that views people who are part of indigenous groups as “second-class citizens.” There is a lot of discrimination against these peoples, and they are not given the same opportunities as other members of society. Yet, Mantilla noted that it is precisely the traditions of these indigenous peoples that give an incredible richness to the cultures of central and south America. He stressed the importance of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document released in 2016 that elaborated on the rights outlined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1945) and applied them specifically to indigenous peoples in America. Among many others, some of the rights listed in the declaration are the right to maintain their own languages and religions, the right to cultural identity, and protections against genocide. Even though declarations are considered “soft law,” or non-binding, they are still important tools in shaping international law and people’s mindsets. 

Professor Mantilla ended his presentation by engaging in a dialogue with the students, asking them what they believe are possible solutions to further protect the rights of indigenous peoples. Different students stressed the importance of forming the conscience of people through education and moral formation in various ways. Others spoke of how the teaching function of the law can gradually shape public awareness of human rights. Overall, the presentation and ensuing dialogue raised awareness about the rights of indigenous peoples and the importance of using positive law to protect the rights owed to people through the natural law.