The rights of indigenous peoples must be protected and respected

15Jan 2019
Dar es Salaam
The Guardian
The rights of indigenous peoples must be protected and respected

THERE are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. They make up less than 5 per cent of the world's population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world's estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000-

different cultures.

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They 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, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Across Asia and the Pacific, they are sharing essential knowledge and skills in conservation and the sustainable use of land, forests and natural resources –key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.


Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history; their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.

Ten years ago, on 13 September 2007, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a major milestone with respect to the cooperation and solidarity between indigenous peoples and member states.The Declaration is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples. It embodies global consensus on the rights of indigenous peoples and establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being. It elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms, as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.Over the last decade, the implementation of the Declaration has achieved some major successes in at the national, regional and international levels. Despite the achievements, there continues to be a gap between the formal recognition of indigenous peoples and the implementation of policies on the ground.  


As a result, indigenous peoples continue to face exclusion, marginalization and major challenges in enjoying their basic rights.

Constitutional reforms can be an essential step towards ensuring the recognition, inclusion and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples. Since the adoption of the Declaration, several countries, particularly in the Latin American region, have taken steps to recognize the identity and rights of indigenous peoples, including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua and the Plurinational State of Bolivia among others. Several countries, including Kenya, recognize certain groups that identify as indigenous peoples. While some countries like Chile have publicly expressed their intent to consider constitutional changes that recognize indigenous peoples, others like Australia and New Zealand are already considering such constitutional changes.

The Declaration has been used to foster development of specific national laws and amendment of existing legislation. In Japan, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, and the Republic of the Congo, laws have been adopted that recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. The Philippines Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 is one of the first examples of indigenous-specific legislation. There is a growing body of jurisprudence, which attests to the success of indigenous advocates in establishing the rights of indigenous peoples.

The adoption of the Declaration motivated several United Nations entities and intergovernmental organizations to revisit their work with indigenous peoples, and develop new strategies and policies.