About Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

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While representing over 6 percent of the worlds’ population (476 million in some 90 countries), indigenous peoples are nearly three times as likely to be living in extreme poverty. They account for almost 19 percent of the extreme poor. Indigenous peoples have been particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic and cultural consequences. Globally, there is a lack of disaggregated data on indigenous peoples. Where data exists, the situation is concerning.

Who are indigenous peoples?

Indigenous peoples live on all continents, from the Arctic to the Pacific, via Asia, Africa and the Americas. There is no singularly authoritative definition of indigenous peoples under international law and policy, and the Indigenous Declaration does not set out any definition. This decision was taken intentionally by the drafters based on the rationale that the identification of an indigenous people is the right of the people itself—the right of self-identification- and a fundamental element of the right to self-determination. Indigenous peoples’ situations and contexts are highly variable; any single definition will not fully capture the full diversity of the indigenous peoples of the world. In fact, its articles 9 and 33 state that indigenous peoples and individuals have the right to belong to an indigenous community or nation, in accordance with the traditions and customs of the community or nation concerned, and that they have the right to determine their own identity.

Many indigenous peoples populated areas before the arrival of others and often retain distinct cultural and political characteristics, including autonomous political and legal structures, as well as a common experience of domination by others, especially non-indigenous groups, and a strong historical and ongoing connection to their lands, territories and resources, including when they practise nomadic lifestyles. While the legal status of indigenous peoples is distinct from that of minorities, they are often, though not always, in the minority in the States in which they reside.

Minorities and indigenous peoples have some similar rights under international law, although the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is arguably more comprehensive than international legal instruments associated with minorities.

The General Assembly, in its resolution 65/198 of 21 December 2010, decided to organize a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly, to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, in order to share perspectives and best practices on the realization of the rights of indigenous peoples, including pursuing the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The World Conference was held on 22 September 2014 and in the afternoon of 23 September 2014 in New York. It resulted in a concise, action-oriented outcome document prepared on the basis of inclusive and open informal consultations with Member States and indigenous peoples.

The situation for indigenous women

Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable, as are indigenous youth, who are disproportionately impacted by lack of access to education and employment opportunities, decision making and access to justice. The semi-autonomous status and/or social exclusion of indigenous communities has led to inadequate mechanisms to address gender-based violence, which tends to be higher than national averages in many countries.

Threats to land and resources

Indigenous peoples continue to face threats, especially to their land rights (from natural resource extraction, infrastructure projects, large scale agriculture and conservation). In some instances there is a heightened risk of statelessness, particularly for those indigenous peoples whose traditional lands cross national borders.

Displacement, conflict and reprisals

This has resulted in the displacement of millions of indigenous peoples, and caused conflicts and a sharp increase in attacks, killings and criminalisation of indigenous peoples, including increasing threats and assassinations of human rights defenders. This also includes harassment and reprisals against indigenous representatives, including for participating in UN fora.

This calls for reinvigorated efforts to address the negative legacy of historical injustices, discrimination, and assimilation that indigenous peoples have been subjected to over centuries.

Participation of indigenous peoples at the UN

On 8 September 2017, the General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/71/321 entitled Enhancing the Participation of Indigenous Peoples’ Representatives and Institutions in Meetings of Relevant United Nations Bodies on Issues Affecting Them. This resolution is a result of a process that began with a commitment by Member States, during the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014, to consider the participation of indigenous peoples at the United Nations. The process continues based on decisions made by the General Assembly. Read more on achievements, analysis and concrete recommendations on the possible further measures necessary to enable the participation of indigenous peoples’ representatives and institutions in meetings of relevant United Nations bodies.