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UN expert hails Vatican rejection of ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, urges States to follow suit

06 April 2023

GENEVA (6 April 2023) – A UN expert today welcomed the Vatican’s rejection of the 'Doctrine of Discovery', a 500-year-old Catholic decree that was used to justify the seizure of indigenous lands by colonial powers.

“The doctrine of discovery is still an open wound for many Indigenous Peoples around the world,” said José Francisco Calí Tzay, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. “It must be addressed as part of a reconciliation process between Indigenous Peoples and colonial States.”

The Special Rapporteur commended the Vatican’s recognition of the harmful effects of colonisation, including the pain suffered by Indigenous Peoples and welcomed Pope Francis’ call to abandon the colonising mentality and promote mutual respect and dialogue.

“The Holy See has taken an important step towards reconciliation and healing with Indigenous Peoples by rejecting all concepts that fail to recognise their inherent human rights,” the UN expert said.

“The doctrine was recognised as vesting a unilateral right of European colonial powers to claim superior sovereignty and rights over Indigenous Peoples’ lands and resources based on their supposed lack of civilisation and religion,” Calí Tzay said. The papal doctrine was used to claim indigenous territories in the Americas, Africa and other parts of the world.

The doctrine continues to have a negative impact on the full enjoyment of human rights by Indigenous Peoples in some countries. The Doctrine of Discovery provides a legal basis to unilaterally deprive Indigenous Peoples of their rights to title and ownership of their traditional lands and territories by States that continue to use this legal theory as part of their national law, legislation, and jurisprudence, particularly in relation to land disputes.

The UN expert noted that this was one of the root causes of the intergenerational trauma suffered by Indigenous Peoples, which currently manifests in high rates of suicide among Indigenous youth, over-representation of Indigenous Peoples in the criminal justice system, disproportionate violence against Indigenous women and girls, and racial discrimination.

The Special Rapporteur urged all States that still embrace and apply the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ to follow the lead of the Vatican in formally repudiating the decree and reviewing all jurisprudence and legislation that relies on it.


Mr. José Francisco Calí Tzay is the Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples
The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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