Our Voices

40th Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award goes to Xinka Parliament, in the name of peaceful resistance

On Tuesday June 6, the same day as the 55th anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy also marked the 40th Human Rights Award bestowed by his namesake organization.

This year’s honoree? The Xinka Parliament, the official representative of the Xinka People, and the second-largest Indigenous nation in Guatemala.

Among the distinguished attendees and guests at the event at the Senate’s Kennedy Caucus room – the same room where Kennedy announced his candidacy for President in April 1968 – were one of the country’s most-produced Native playwrights, RFK Human Rights board member, Mary Kathryn Nagle. Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post senior correspondent Kevin Sullivan served as the event’s keynote speaker.

Kerry Kennedy, RFK Human Rights President, described the parliament’s work as “tirelessly advocating for cultural, territorial, and women’s rights for the Xinka and other Indigenous peoples, as well as for the environmental integrity of their ancestral lands, standing up to powerful forces that threaten their way of life.”

Since colonial times, foreign companies have enriched themselves by stripping indigenous Guatemalans of their natural resources. During the 1960s, US and Canadian mining companies secured 40-year concessions and agreements that the Guatemalan military would assure stability around the mines. Later, while the military carried out an extermination effort against indigenous people, multinational corporations used that same military to protect their concessions around the mines.

After the 1996 peace accords, which put an end to the genocide, mining resumed as a mainstay of the national economy. Over the next decade, mining concessions grew by 1,000 percent. As mining increased, so did human rights violations. The government’s failure to protect the rights of indigenous people to their traditional lands led directly to a series of additional abuses. The affected communities faced defamation campaigns, death threats, arbitrary detention, and extrajudicial executions. Too many were forcibly displaced. Those who remain, are under constant threat simply for asserting their constitutional rights.

These abuses continue today and have been repeated in indigenous communities across Guatemala, nowhere more so than at the Escobal Mining Project in the heart of Xinka Indigenous territory.

El Escobal is the second-largest silver mine in the world. It’s operated by Minera San Rafael, a subsidiary of Canadian multinational Pan American Silver, one of the world’s biggest silver producers known for abusive practices in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. When the mine opened in 2014, the Xinka Parliament organized massive popular resistance. They closed roads, they lobbied the international community, and sued the company in international courts.

In retaliation, Minera and its members responded with a campaign of using local courts to target the Xinka Parliament, hiring security forces including the military and police who violently suppressed Xinka activists, and more. In 2014, Xinka Parliament member Alex Reynoso and his 16-year-old daughter Topacio, activists in the resistance to the mine, were threatened, harassed and eventually, murdered.

With undaunted courage in the face of brutality, Topacio’s family and The Xinka Parliament continued their protests, and in 2017, they built a peaceful encampment on the main road to the mine. It was an extraordinary success and halted all operations.

Meanwhile, they challenged the mining license in Court, and in 2018, they won. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court confirmed the order to consult and suspended the operation of the mine.

Today, the Escobal mine remains suspended and 24-hour encampments are maintained on both access roads to the mine. The consultation process is ongoing, but the Xinka Parliament is demanding that the process restart from the beginning to ensure their full participation and strict adherence to international standards concerning Xinka self-determination and their right to free, prior, and informed consent.

The fight of the Xinka Parliament against the Escobal Mine has not only been a battle for the integrity of their territory but also a testament to their determination to protect their natural resources and ensure a sustainable future for their communities.

“Despite threats of imprisonment and death, they continue raising awareness about the environmental and social impacts of mining activities, coordinate thousands of members across three different regions, mobilize local and international support, and challenge the status quo,” Kennedy said. “Through the Xinka Parliament, we have witnessed the power of resilience, courage, and the unwavering commitment to justice. They remind us that in the face of adversity, we can create transformative change.

Aleisar Arana Morales, Huxi Hurak (president) of the Parliament, described the award as a major motivator to continue to defend Xinka territory.