The Indigenous World 2023: Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Rapa Nui is an island of 16,628 hectares located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and separated from the coast of continental Chile by more than 3,700 kilometres. The Rapa Nui people live there, descendants of an age-old culture recognized for the creation of large megalithic structures known as Moai and for having developed a unique civilization.
Rapa Nui is currently a territory annexed to the State of Chile by virtue of a treaty signed by both nations on 9 September 1888 called the “Agreement of Wills”. This document establishes respect for the investiture of Rapa Nui chiefs and reserves ownership of the land for their people. However, the Chilean State has systematically failed to comply with these agreements, usurping ownership of the land and committing major violations of the rights of its native inhabitants.
Indigenous affairs in Chile generally were strongly marked by the process of drafting a new Constitution that took place in the country throughout 2022. This historic event represented the first time that the human rights of Indigenous Peoples in Chile, a country that has not even recognized the existence of its native peoples at this level, had been brought to the fore at the constitutional level.
Rapa Nui formed part of this process, first through its representation in the Constitutional Assembly – by means of seats reserved for Indigenous Peoples –, and second through the submission of “draft Indigenous standards”. In this context, extensive assemblies were held at which the Rapa Nui people considered the content of a norm or article in this new constitutional text. The Chilean Constitution currently comprises one article (126a) related to Easter Island, the origin of which is focused on its geographic location, and it in no way recognizes the existence of the Polynesian Rapa Nui people or their rights.
Horizontally, through their traditional organizations, the Rapa Nui people have expressed the need for the State of Chile to ratify and comply with the 1888 Treaty of Wills, the basic document on which the legal relationship between both parties rests, and which was signed as an international treaty by two autonomous nations at the end of the 19th century.
In this context, the claims of the Rapa Nui people have been focused on their right to self-determination and territorial rights, together with the need for reparations from the State due to years of human rights violations and neglect.
During August, a delegation headed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), undertook an official visit to Rapa Nui during which informative workshops were held for the community regarding the draft of the new Constitution. The representatives of the UN agencies also held meetings with Rapa Nui leaders and their main organizations, such as the Council of Elders, the Assembly of Family Clans (Honui) and the Rapa Nui Parliament, together with other civil society organizations, which meant it was also possible to partly analyse the situation of children and women on the island.
The constitutional process failed in the end, with the new Constitution being rejected in a national referendum held on 4 September 2022. It should be noted that Rapa Nui was one of the few places that voted in favour of the new Constitution.
Subsequently, on 28 September 2022, the Government of Chile formally committed to moving forward with a local governance proposal for Rapa Nui. This encompasses a project for autonomous government and a land policy together with the sustainable development of its people.
In addition, the second half of 2022 was marked by the “opening up of Rapa Nui” since, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the territory had been closed to commercial flights and visits for 872 days. This situation kept the inhabitants of the island free from the disease for more than two years, and demonstrated how the people prioritized health over economic issues given that the main and only source of income in the territory is tourism.
As of August, commercial flights with tourists resumed. This resulted in the arrival of the virus in the territory but the situation was duly controlled without causing any damage. This also commenced a process of economic recovery and recovery from the high unemployment caused by the pandemic.
During November, several Rapa Nui organizations had the opportunity to participate in international events: firstly, an international meeting of experts, a preliminary body to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, under the theme “Truth processes, transitional justice and reconciliation”, held in Santiago, Chile.
Secondly, they attended the “Expert workshop on possible ways to enhance the participation of Indigenous Peoples in the work of the Human Rights Council”, held in Geneva, Switzerland. This workshop was held under the auspices of Human Rights Council Resolution 48/11 by which the OHCHR was requested to convene a four-day expert workshop in 2022 on possible ways to enhance the participation of Indigenous Peoples in the work of the Human Rights Council. This workshop enabled various Indigenous experts to dialogue directly with State representatives regarding Indigenous participation at the international level.
Finally, the Municipality of Rapa Nui was invited to run a parallel event within the framework of the 11th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.
Benjamin Ilabaca D. is a Rapa Nui lawyer, legal adviser to the Municipality of Easter Island and the Rapa Nui Parliament. He also acts as an international consultant.
This article is part of the 37th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2023 in full here.
Notes and references
 OHCHR. “Chile: Oficina realizó misión conjunta con PNUD a Rapa Nui” [Chile: Office conducts joint mission to Rapa Nui with UNDP]. OHCHR, 30 August 2022. Available at https://acnudh.org/chile-oficina-realizo-mision-conjunta-con-pnud-a-rapa-nui/
Tags: Global governance