While celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) at the recently concluded sixteenth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), participants also discussed the particular issues that continue to affect indigenous populations around the globe, including land dispossession and violence. During the recent session, regional and universal intergovernmental bodies, such as the International Labor Organization and the European Union, as well as human rights experts presented reports and statements on the status of the rights of indigenous peoples to the UNPFII – an entity established in 2000 to provide recommendations on indigenous issues to UN agencies. Although the declaration promotes land rights, access to education, and fair working conditions, the continued need to protect these rights were common themes raised during the forum, including in the Secretariat of the forum’s report on implementation of the declaration. In particular, both at the UNPFII and in other recent statements, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, identified ongoing violence, arrests, land dispossession, denial of self-determination, a lack of consultation, and inadequate education and social services as just some of the continuing obstacles plaguing indigenous communities. [UN News Centre; OHCHR Press Release: United States; OHCHR Press Release: Australia] See also OHCHR, Statement of Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. As demonstrated in other recent reports, statements, and unfolding situations, recent incidents and trends around the globe – including in Australia, the United States, and Brazil, among others – reflect the concerns raised during the forum, particularly concerning violence against indigenous peoples and forced dispossession of land. [IJRC: Asia; IJRC: IACHR; Reuters; Guardian; All Africa]
Sixteenth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
During the sixteenth session of the UNPFII, which took place from April 24 to May 5, 2017, several UN entities, regional bodies, and human rights expert reports and statements highlighted the importance of providing equal education and employment opportunities and ensuring the rights to self-determination and conservation, among others. The International Labor Organization (ILO) expressed its view that ensuring indigenous peoples equal access to training, education, employment, decent working conditions, and social protections are particularly important steps to consider in the 2030 Agenda. See ILO, Statement: 16th Session on the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) emphasized that the right of indigenous peoples’ to conservation and protection of the environment is vital to achieving its Sustainable Development Goals. See UNDP, Celebrating indigenous peoples as nature’s stewards. The European Union noted the disproportionate effect of global economic crises, migration, terrorism, poverty, and inequalities on indigenous peoples. The EU went on to highlight the need to support indigenous human rights defenders, particularly with regards to the issues of land rights, natural resources, biodiversity, and climate change. See EU, EU Statement.
The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, shared her views during the sixteenth session of the UNPFII. She stated that the situation facing indigenous peoples today “is really not in a very good state,” noting policies and laws targeting indigenous populations, and instances of harassment, torture, and arrests against indigenous peoples peacefully protecting their land. [UN News Centre] She provided examples from her recent visits, including in Honduras where family members of an indigenous rights defender who was killed have endured delayed trial proceedings. She also raised the example of the arrests and physical attacks against members of the Standing Rock reservation protests in the United States. [UN News Centre; OHCHR Press Release: United States]
According to the agenda, the session also included follow-up discussions on 40 recommendations from previous forums. The pre-session document on recommendations noted improvements related to a few recommendations, particularly concerning indigenous women and indigenous youth. See Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Update on the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Permanent Forum, UN Doc. E/C.19/2017/3, 6 February 2017, paras. 15-17. Positive developments included the Commission on the Status of Women taking on the topic of empowering indigenous women and the increased participation of indigenous youths within UN entities, among other developments. See id. at paras. 18-24, 28-35.
Report on the Implementation of the Declaration
The Secretariat of UNPFII submitted a report on the implementation of UNDRIP ten years after its adoption. According to the report, the UNDRIP has enjoyed increased recognition with all four countries that initially voted against it (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) now supporting the declaration. See UNPFII, Tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples: measures taken to implement the Declaration, para. 3. The report notes that constitutional reforms in Ecuador, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Kenya indicate a positive step towards promoting the rights of indigenous populations. See id. at paras. 9-17. The report references the outcome document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014 as an important step in solidifying commitments by States to promote indigenous rights domestically. See id. at paras. 40-47.
The report also puts forth recommendations to improve the situation of indigenous peoples. Legislation and policies on land rights, the report recommends, should not be undermined by pressure, or laws, related to large-scale development projects and natural resource extraction. See id. at paras. 21-22. The report also recommends gathering disaggregated data on the situation of indigenous peoples, particularly on health, education, and income, and increasing the effective participation of indigenous peoples in governance and institutional structures. See id. at para. 59
Current Global Challenges to the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The Special Rapporteur also recently addressed the right of indigenous peoples to conservation in her statement at the 71st session of the General Assembly. She concluded that the largest obstacle impeding the participation of indigenous populations in conservation efforts is the continued lack of legal recognition of their land rights. See OHCHR, Statement of Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.
In her most recent report, the Special Rapporteur concluded that reforms are needed in international investment structures in order to ensure the rights of indigenous peoples; she recommended improving consultation procedures with indigenous people regarding the drafting, negotiation, and approval of international investment agreements. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, UN Doc. A/HRC/33/42, 11 August 2016, paras. 79, 93. Additionally, she asserted that human rights impact assessments ought to be conducted in this context and that States must fulfill their obligations to regulate investment. See id. at paras. 93, 103.
In addition to her statements on the general situation of indigenous peoples around the world, the Special Rapporteur has this year addressed the situation of indigenous peoples in particular States. She recently visited Australia where she observed “astounding” rates of imprisonment of indigenous populations. While noting that the adoption of numerous policies addressing socio-economic disadvantages is a positive step, the Special Rapporteur expressed concern that policies have failed to adequately address the rights of Aboriginal peoples and particularly to address the rights of those from the Torres Strait Islands to self-determination, full and effective participation in society, health, education, and employment. She recommended that the government consult with indigenous communities, particularly in relation to community-led initiatives in public health, housing, education, child-protection, and the rule of law. [OHCHR Press Release: Australia]
According to the Special Rapporteur, in the United States laws fail to provide for the effective consultation with indigenous populations prior to construction projects, like the Dakota Access Pipeline. In a statement made earlier this year, she noted that energy development projects may threaten water supplies, especially in water-scarce regions, and damage sacred sites. She called on the United States to implement the Declaration’s principles on consultation to achieve free, prior, and informed consent from indigenous peoples. [OHCHR Press Release: United States]
In certain countries in Asia, the ILO reported earlier this year, national and regional institutions fail to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. Specific challenges identified in the report include inconsistent definitions of “indigenous” in national instruments; varied opportunity for indigenous peoples’ participation in and consultation with governments; routine land dispossession; lack of access to natural resources; and lack of health and social services. The report, in particular, recommended using the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement as forums to better include the rights of indigenous peoples. [IJRC: Asia]
In Brazil, protests over land rights between indigenous peoples, farmers, and ranchers recently escalated resulting in injuries to more than a dozen indigenous people from the Gamela community. In a protest aimed to influence legislation that decides land boundaries for indigenous reservations, Gamela protesters occupied an area that they claim is traditional territory but was previously divvied up to local landowners. A little over two weeks ago, local ranch owners responded to the protest violently with guns and machetes. [Reuters; Guardian] Indigenous rights activists expressed concern regarding the routine violence over territorial conflicts in the region; deadly conflicts have also occurred between indigenous communities and loggers involved in deforestation. [Guardian]
The Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007. While not binding, UNDRIP is one of the few international instruments specifically addressing indigenous rights, and enshrines a “universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of indigenous peoples worldwide.” See UN DESA, United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples.
The ILO Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, 1989 (No. 169) and the ILO Convention on the Rights of Indigenous, Tribal and Semi-Tribal Populations in Independent Countries, 1957 (No. 107) are binding international treaties that specifically protect indigenous peoples’ rights. Additionally, indigenous peoples’ rights are protected through other international human rights instruments that seek to protect the rights of all people. See OHCHR, Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Human Rights System Fact Sheet No. 9/Rev.2.
For more information on the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, or on economic, social and cultural rights, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.