Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples
What are the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples?
Human Rights are universal, and civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights belong to all human beings, including indigenous people. Every indigenous woman, man, youth and child is entitled to the realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on equal terms with others in society, without discrimination of any kind. Indigenous people and peoples also enjoy certain human rights specifically linked to their identity, including rights to maintain and enjoy their culture and language free from discrimination, rights of access to ancestral lands and land relied upon for subsistence, rights to decide their own patterns of development, and rights to autonomy over indigenous affairs.
The Human Rights at Issue
The human rights of indigenous people and peoples are explicitly set out in the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and other widely adhered to international human rights treaties and Declarations. They include the following indivisible, interdependent and interrelated human rights:
The human right to freedom from any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on their indigenous status which has the purpose or effect of impairing the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The human right to freedom from discrimination in access to housing, education, social services, health care or employment.
The human right to equal recognition as a person before the law, to equality before the courts, and to equal protection of the law.
The human right of indigenous peoples to exist.
The human right to freedom from genocide and 'ethnic cleansing'.
The human right to livelihood and work which is freely chosen, and to subsistence and access to land to which they have traditionally had access and relied upon for subsistence.
The human right to maintain their distinctive spiritual and material relationship with the lands, to own land individually and in community with others, and to transfer land rights according to their own customs.
The human right to use, manage and safeguard the natural resources pertaining to their lands.
The human right to freedom of association.
The human right to enjoy and develop their own culture and language.
The human right to establish and maintain their own schools and other training and educational institutions, and to teach and receive training in their own languages.
The human right to full and effective participation in shaping decisions and policies concerning their group and community, at the local, national and international levels, including policies relating to economic and social development.
The human right to self-determination and autonomy over all matters internal to the group, including in the fields of culture, religion, and local government.
Governments' Obligations to Ensuring the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples
What provisions of human right law guarantee the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples?
Includes excerpts from the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention against Discrimination in Education.
- "Governments shall have the responsibility for ... Ensuring that [indigenous] peoples benefit on an equal footing from the rights and opportunities which national laws and regulations grant to other members of the population.... Indigenous and tribal peoples shall enjoy ... human rights ... without ... discrimination.... Governments shall ... Establish means by which [indigenous] peoples can freely participate ... at all levels of decision-making in ... institutions and ... bodies responsible for policies and programmes which concern them.... The peoples ... shall have the right to decide their own priorities for ... development as it affects their lives ... and the lands they occupy ... and to exercise control ... over their ... development.... [G]overnments shall respect the special importance ... of their relationship with the lands....The rights of ownership and possession ... over the lands which they traditionally occupy shall be recognized.... Measures shall be taken ... to safeguard the right of the peoples concerned to use lands ... to which they have traditionally had access for their subsistence and traditional activities.... The rights of the peoples concerned to the natural resources pertaining to their lands shall be specially safeguarded. These rights include the right of these peoples to participate in the use, management and conservation of these resources.... Governments shall take steps ...to guarantee effective protection of their rights of ownership and possession.... The peoples concerned shall not be removed from the lands which they occupy.... Procedures established by the peoples concerned for the transmission of land rights among members of these peoples shall be respected.... National agrarian programs shall secure to the peoples concerned treatment equivalent to that accorded to other sectors of the population with regard to: the provision of more land for these peoples when they have not the area necessary for providing the essentials of a normal existence, or for any possible increase in their numbers; the provision of the means required to promote the development of the lands which these peoples already posess."
- --ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, (No. 169), Articles 2, 3, 6, 7, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 19
- "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.... Everyone is entitled to ... rights ... without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour,... language, religion,... national or social origin,... or other status.... All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination ... and against any incitement to ... discrimination.... Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment...."
- --Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 1, 2, 7, and 23
- "States Parties...undertake to guarantee that ... rights ... will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, ... language, religion,... national or social origin,... or other status.... The States Parties ... recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses...."
- --International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Articles 2 and 6
- "Each State Party ... undertakes to ... ensure ... rights ... without distinction of any kind.... All persons shall be equal before the courts.... Every child shall have, without any discrimination as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property or birth, the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor.... All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.... The law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground..... In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language."
- --International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
Articles 2,14, 24, 26 and 27
- "The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide ... is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.... [Genocide] means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group...: Killing members of the groups; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
- --Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Articles 1 and 2
- "States Parties condemn racial discrimination and undertake to pursue by all appropriate means ... a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms.... Each State Party undertakes to engage in no act ... of racial discrimination.... States Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, ... the enjoyment of ... political rights ... civil rights ... economic, social and cultural rights, in particular: the right to work, ... to just and favourable conditions or work...; the right to housing; ... to public health, medical care, social security and social services; the right to education and training.... States Parties shall assure ... effective protection and remedies ... against any acts of racial discrimination.... "
- --Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Articles 2, 5, and 6
- "States Parties shall respect and ensure ... rights ... to each child ... without discrimination of any kind irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents, legal guardians, or family members.... States Parties recognize the important function performed by the mass media and shall ensure that the child has access to information.... States Parties shall ... Encourage the mass media to have particular regard to the linguistic needs of the child who belongs to a minority group or who is indigenous.... States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and ... shall ... make primary education compulsory and available free to all; ... make [secondary education] available and accessible to every child...; make higher education accessible to all.... States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to ... the development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values.... In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practice his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language. "
- --Convention on the Rights of the Child, Articles 2, 17, 28, 29, and 30
- "... States Parties ... undertake: To ... discontinue any ... practices which involve discrimination in education.... It is essential to recognize the right of members of national minorities to carry on their own educational activities, including the maintenance of schools and ... the use or the teaching of their own language...."
- --Convention against Discrimination in Education, Articles 3 and 5
Governments' Commitments to Ensuring the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples
What commitments have governments made to ensuring the realization of the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples?
Includes excerpts from the Draft Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, and commitments made at the Earth Summit in Rio, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, the World Conference on Women in Beijing, and the Habitat II conference in Istanbul.
- "Indigenous peoples have the right to the full and effective enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.... Indigenous individuals and peoples are free and equal to all other individuals and peoples in dignity and rights, and have the right to be free from any kind of adverse discrimination.... Indigenous peoples have the collective and individual right not to be subjected to ethnocide and cultural genocide, including prevention of and redress for ... any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.... Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories.... Indigenous peoples have the right to ... be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.... Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain ... their distinctive spiritual and material relationship with the lands ... and other resources which they have traditionally owned ... occupied or used, and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations.... Indigenous peoples have the right to ... full recognition of their laws, traditions and customs, land-tenure systems and institutions for the development and management of resources, and the right to effective measures by States to prevent any interference with, alienation of or encroachment upon these rights.... Indigenous peoples have the right to the restitution of the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used ... which have been confiscated, occupied, used or damaged.... Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands, territories and other resources, including the right to require that States obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands ... and other resources...."
- --Draft Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Articles 1, 2, 7, 10, 21, 25, 26, 27, and 30
- "Persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities ... have the right to enjoy their ... culture ... freely and without ... any form of discrimination.... Persons belonging to minorities may exercise their rights ... individually as well as in community with other members of their group, without any discrimination.... States shall ... ensure that persons belonging to minorities may exercise fully and effectively all their human rights and fundamental freedoms without any discrimination and in full equality before the law...."
- -- Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, Articles 2, 3, and 4
- "Indigenous people ... have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should ... enable their ... participation in the achievement of sustainable development.... Indigenous people and their communities shall enjoy the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms without hindrance or discrimination.... In view of the interrelationship between the natural environment and its sustainable development and the cultural, social, economic and physical well-being of indigenous people, national and international efforts to implement environmentally sound and sustainable development should recognize, accommodate, promote and strengthen the role of indigenous people and their communities. Objectives: ... Recognition that the lands of indigenous people and their communities should be protected from activities that are environmentally unsound or that the indigenous people concerned consider to be socially and culturally inappropriate.... Establishment ... of arrangements to strengthen the active participation of indigenous people and their communities in the national formulation of policies, laws and programmes relating to resource management and other development processes that may affect them...."
- --Rio Declaration, Principle 22, and Agenda 21, Chapter 26, paras. 1 and 3
- "The World Conference on Human Rights recognizes the inherent dignity and the unique contribution of indigenous people to the development and plurality of society and strongly reaffirms the commitment of the international community to their economic, social and cultural well-being.... States should ensure the full and free participation of indigenous people in all aspects of society.... States should ... take concerted steps to ensure respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, on the basis of equality and non-discrimination, and recognize the value and diversity of their distinct identities, cultures and social organization.... The World Conference on Human Rights urges States to ensure the full and free participation of indigenous people in all aspects of society, in particular in matters of concern to them...."
- --Vienna Declaration, Part I, para. 20, and Part II, para. 31
- "... incorporate the perspectives and needs of indigenous communities into the design, implementation ... and evaluation of ... development and environment programmes that affect them;... Governments should ... enable them to have tenure and manage their lands, protect ... the natural resources and ecosystems on which indigenous communities depend.... A
- --Cairo Programme of Action, paras. 6.24 and 6.27
- "We will... respect the right of indigenous people to maintain ... their identity, culture and interests ... and provide an environment that enables them to participate in ... social, economic, and political life...."
- --Copenhagen Declaration, Commitment 4
- "We are determined to ... ensure equal enjoyment of all human rights ... for all women and girls who face multiple barriers to their empowerment and advancement because of such factors as their race, age, language, ethnicity, culture, religion, or disability, or because they are indigenous people...."
- --Beijing Declaration, para. 32
- "Actions to be taken: ... Integrate women, including indigenous women, their perspectives and knowledge, on an equal basis with men, in decision-making regarding sustainable resource management and the development of policies and programmes for sustainable development, including in particular those designed to address and prevent environmental degradation of the land...."
- --Beijing Platform for Action, para. 256
- "In shelter and urban development and management policies, particular attention should be given to the needs and participation of indigenous people. These policies should fully respect their identity and culture and provide an appropriate environment that enables them to participate in political, social and economic life.... We ... commit ourselves to ... Protecting ... the legal traditional rights of indigenous people to land and other resources...."
- --Habitat Agenda, paras. 14 and 40
For more information, please contact PDHRE
The People's Movement for Human Rights Education (PDHRE) / NY Office
Shulamith Koenig / Executive Director
526 West 111th Street, New York, NY 10025
tel: 212.749-3156; fax: 212.666-6325;