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Combating Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples

The world’s indigenous population has been estimated at 370 million individuals living in more than 70 countries and made up of more than 5.000 distinct peoples. Although representing 5% of the world’s population, indigenous peoples account for 15% of the world’s poorest people1. Indigenous peoples face many challenges and their human rights are frequently violated: they are denied control over their own development based on their own values, needs and priorities; they are politically under-represented and lack access to social and other services. They are often marginalized when it comes to projects affecting their lands and have been the victims of forced displacement as a result of ventures such as the exploitation of natural resources.

The United Nations has highlighted the problem of discrimination against indigenous peoples since the first Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination in 1973-1982. In 1982, the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations articulated needs and aspirations of indigenous peoples in a draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This led to the landmark adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007 by the UN General Assembly. The Declaration has rapidly become a key tool for the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has made it clear that discrimination against indigenous peoples is racial discrimination.

Activities of the United Nations

The UN has established various mechanisms for promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples that contribute to combating discrimination against them:

  • The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was created to advise the UN and specifically to raise awareness and promote the coordination of activities in this field.

  • The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people has a mandate to gather, request, receive and exchange information on alleged violations of their human rights.

  • The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides the Human Rights Council with advice and thematic expertise on the rights of indigenous peoples.  

The Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Unit of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is specifically tasked with advancing the rights of indigenous peoples, including by combating discrimination. It builds national capacity, including through training programmes for indigenous activists; conducts research and analysis; supports the Expert Mechanism and the Special Rapporteur; and engages with the wider community forging partnerships, raising awareness about the Declaration and other key standards and mobilizing support for anti-discrimination measures through legislation, policies and programmes. It also provides support to the Office’s presences on the ground and UN country teams in their efforts to promote indigenous peoples’ rights and eliminate discrimination. 

1. All figures provided by the International Fund for Agriculture and Development.