Advocate for the People

Today, Anaya serves as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for indigenous peoples, helping native populations across the planet advocate for themselves and their rights.
March 15, 2011

In today’s world, optimists are not always easy to find. But for law professor James Anaya, the profound sense that he can make a difference motivates everything he does.

On December 9, 2010, Anaya was named Regents’ Professor, the highest honor the Regents grant to full professors for academic achievement. In light of his accomplishments, the honor is well-deserved.

Anaya grew up in the Southwest, attended the University of New Mexico, and went on to get his law degree from Harvard. After graduating, he began practicing law in Albuquerque, where he first got an inkling of the direction he needed to take.

“In the mid-80s when I started practicing law,” he says, ”native peoples were increasingly going to the UN to attempt to have their grievances addressed, having not received sufficient or adequate responses within their domestic local settings. I wanted to explore the possibility as a lawyer of moving these efforts forward at an international level.”

In pursuit of the answers, he took a faculty position at the University of Iowa, as well as visiting professorships at Harvard Law, the University of Toronto and the University of Tulsa.

Today, Anaya is the James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy at the James E. Rogers College of Law. As a scholar, he played a key role in establishing the UA’s Indigenous People Law and Policy Program, and since joining the faculty in 1999, he has always striven to involve law students in his research.

But Anaya’s efforts by no means stop on this campus or even in the world of academia. His belief in the law, paired with his boundless optimism, has driven him to take actions that directly affect the lives of peoples around the planet.

In 1996, the first edition of his book Indigenous Peoples in International Law was published; it is now a classic among experts in the field. In addition, he helped to draft the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the UN General Assembly adopted in 2007. In 2008, he was named UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UN’s principal official on the subject.

While pursuing his scholarship and teaching students here at home, Anaya tirelessly travels the world to meet with indigenous peoples and ensure that their voices are heard throughout the international community.

“I personally don’t know how he does it,” says Toni Massaro, a fellow Regents’ Professor and former dean of the UA Collage of Law. “He has an amazing capacity to live in multiple time zones at once, but each place he goes, he gets in the thick of it.”

Yet somehow, through the countless hours and days of study, writing and collaborating directly with those who need him most, Anaya always returns to his solace at home with his family here in the southwest.

“One of the greatest feelings is when I get off the plane at Tucson airport and smell the southern Arizona air and see the sky.”

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