Indigenous peoples have become more visible in the last 50 years, largely due to efforts from within their own communities and organizations. However, it has not been easy for the international community to create legal instruments that would guarantee their autonomy, cultural integrity, protection of their special needs… in general to guarantee their rights. Indigenous peoples are the inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to other people and to the environment. Indigenous peoples have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, the various groups of indigenous peoples around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.
What are indigenous peoples?
There is no universal definition because it’s quite impossible to come up with an all-inclusive description that would fit all indigenous peoples. However, attempts at a definition can be found in international law, such as the 1989 International Labour Organization´s Convention and the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:
“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of the,” writes Jose R. Martinez Cobo, the Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, in his famous Study on the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations.
Collective rights of indigenous peoples as a group
Why can’t we just fall back on the existing and internationally recognized human rights treaties? Because most human rights treaties reflect an individualistic concept of rights and rights-holders. But for many indigenous peoples their identity as an individual is inseparably connected to the community to which that individual belongs. Therefore the problem is that whilst human rights treaties and instruments guarantee individual rights, indigenous peoples ask for protection of their collective rights as a group.
Indigenous peoples around the world have sought recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources, yet throughout history, their rights have been violated. Indigenous peoples are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world today. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect the rights of the world's indigenous peoples.
One of the most cited descriptions of the concept of the indigenous was given by Jose R. Martinez Cobo, the Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, in his famous Study on the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations:
“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.
“This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present of one or more of the following factors:
a) Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them;
b) Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands;
c) Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.);
d) Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language);
e) Residence on certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world;
f) Other relevant factors.
“On an individual basis, an indigenous person is one who belongs to these indigenous populations through self-identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized and accepted by these populations as one of its members (acceptance by the group).
“This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference”
The Brussels based United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe - UNRIC provides information on UN activities to the countries of the region. It also provides liaison with institutions of the European Union in the field of information. Its outreach activities extend to all segments of society and joint campaigns, projects and events are organized with partners including the EU, governments, the media, NGOs, schools and local authorities.
United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe (UNRIC Brussels)
Residence Palace, Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat 155, Block C2,7th and 8th floor, Brussels 1040, Belgium
Tel.: +32 2 788 8484 / Fax: 32 2 788 8485