As The Voices of Indigenous Peoples "Must Be Effectively Heard", There Will Be a World Conference On Them!

Human Wrongs Watch

The voices of indigenous peoples must be effectively heard and they must be consulted on issues that affect them, including rights to land and resources, the United Nations Human Rights Council heard on 17 September 2014.

Indigenous people in Totonicapán, Guatemala. Photo: OHCHR/Rolando Alfaro

Indigenous people in Totonicapán, Guatemala. Photo: OHCHR/Rolando Alfaro

“Although there is, at both the international and domestic levels, a strong legal and policy foundation upon which to move forward with the implementation of indigenous peoples’ rights, there are still numerous obstacles preventing indigenous peoples from fully enjoying their human rights,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.*

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in some 90 countries who constitute 15 per cent of the world’s poor and about one third of the 900 million extremely poor rural people. Practicing unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.

Among the Most Disadvantaged and Vulnerable Populations

Indigenous peoples are also among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, with many of them struggling to remain on their lands and retain the right to their natural resources, while others have long since been removed from their lands, denied their languages and traditional ways.

Tauli-Corpuz noted that among the barriers preventing indigenous peoples from fully enjoying their rights is the absence of steps towards reconciliation with indigenous peoples and redress for past violation of their human rights.

Linked with reconciliation yet to be completed, she said, is the ongoing negative perception of indigenous peoples among the broader societies in which they live, including within governments.

“The nearly universal disadvantageous social and economic conditions of indigenous peoples as compared to the economic and social conditions of the majority societies in which they live present a barrier to the full exercise of their human rights,” the expert added.

Today’s [17 September 2014] meeting in Geneva comes just days ahead of the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, a high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly, set to take place on 22 and 23 September in New York.

“The World Conference will be a unique opportunity for the international community to renew its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Albert Deterville, Chair-Rapporteur of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said in his statement to the Council.

Adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, the UN Declaration recognizes their right to self-determination and to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

“It is the Expert Mechanism’s hope that the World Conference and its outcome document will lead to concrete measures to fulfil the rights of indigenous peoples in all regions of the world,” said Deterville.

He added that the Expert Mechanism has been actively engaged in the preparation for the Conference. Its members have consistently advocated for, and remain committed to, the full, equal and effective participation of indigenous peoples in the event, and are pleased to see that indigenous peoples’ perspectives and inputs have been included in the outcome document.

Deterville also reported to the Council on the work carried out by the Expert Mechanism, including a follow-up on study access to justice in the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples, and a study on the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples in natural disaster risk reduction. (*Source: UN Release).

Coming Soon: the First-ever World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

On 18 September 2014 ILO informed that in a few days the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples will open at the United Nations General Assembly in New York – the first time several Heads of Governments and States will meet indigenous peoples’ representatives from all over world in the same venue.**

Photo from ILO

Photo from ILO

The historic gathering follows other important steps over the last three decades that have brought recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and promoted their participation at the international level.


The ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention

These include the adoption of the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169), the creation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, and the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

In New York, world leaders will not only reaffirm their commitment to indigenous peoples’ rights but also pledge to take specific action at the national level in partnership with indigenous peoples to realize their rights. The Conference is also expected to set in motion a process of strengthening the work of the UN system on indigenous peoples at the country level.

A Global Commitment to Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

The draft outcome document submitted for adoption by the World Conference will be important for the ILO, as it is the institutional host of Convention No. 169 – a legally binding international instrument specifically dedicated to indigenous peoples.

Since its adoption 25 years ago, Convention No. 169 has been a driver for far-reaching transformative processes towards more democracy, respect for human rights, inclusive societies and peace in numerous countries, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The 2007 UN Declaration has amplified the global movement and commitment to indigenous peoples’ rights. But much remains to be done in promoting the ratification of Convention No. 169 in Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific. Among the 22 ratifications registered with the ILO so far, only seven are from countries in these regions.

Countries Discussing or Even Actively Pursuing Ratification

There was consensus during the preparatory negotiations for the World Conference outcome document that the Heads of State should encourage further ratification of the Convention. Such a move could be catalytic. Policy makers and indigenous peoples in countries such as Bangladesh, Finland, El Salvador, Indonesia, Panama, the Philippines and Sweden have been discussing or even actively pursuing ratification.

The Government of the Republic of Congo has recently adopted a national action plan (2014-2017) which includes ratification of Convention No. 169 as a key element to improve the conditions of the indigenous groups affected by exclusion and poverty.

Participants at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May 2014. Photo by Broddi Sigurdarson, United Nations

Participants at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May 2014. Photo by Broddi Sigurdarson, United Nations

States’s Obligation to Consult Them

The Convention regulates the State’s obligation to consult indigenous peoples as regards legislative and administrative measures which may affect them, including approval for the exploration and exploitation of natural resources pertaining to the lands that they traditionally occupy or use. The Convention also calls for effective mechanisms for their participation in decision-making processes.

Implementing these provisions is an on-going and a long-term process in most countries that requires continuing support, exchange of experiences and encouragement. But these are critical investments in building fruitful relations between indigenous peoples and governments, and for sustainable development and the full realization of indigenous peoples’ rights and their legitimate aspirations.

Land Rights, Traditional Occupations, Skills and Knowledge

From the ILO’s perspective, supporting indigenous peoples’ economic activities as well as their political empowerment, is important. Recognizing and protecting their land rights are essential for protecting their livelihoods and community-based economies.

As pointed out by the ILO during the preparatory phase leading up to the World Conference, indigenous peoples’ traditional occupations, skills and knowledge are assets that can provide a basis for self-employment, as well as the creation of enterprises and cooperatives. Local infrastructure projects developed and implemented with the full participation of indigenous communities can involve the creation of small enterprises and work opportunities within the community.

Photo: Martin Abbiati/IRIN | An ethnic Hmong woman in Ban Houythao, northern Luang Prabang, Laos

Photo: Martin Abbiati/IRIN | An ethnic Hmong woman in Ban Houythao, northern Luang Prabang, Laos


But there are also obstacles here as well. The lack of access to land and other resources and to basic social services often means that indigenous men and women, particularly youths, have no other choice than to migrate, both within countries and internationally. Indigenous women migrating to enter into domestic work is a case in point.

Another serious issue is the lack of access to education and vocational training developed and implemented in cooperation with indigenous peoples that is in line with their cultures and needs. This problem, which particularly affects girls, places indigenous youths in a severely disadvantaged position in the labour market.


Irrespective of whether they work in urban or rural areas, indigenous women and men tend to find themselves in informal or casual jobs where they are vulnerable to discrimination and other rights violations. As a result, they also find themselves excluded from any form of social protection.

Next week in New York, the ILO will participate in the World Conference to share experiences from its work with governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations, indigenous peoples and the UN family to support ratification and implementation of Convention No. 169 and to promote social justice and decent work for all. (**Source: ILO News.)

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