Indigenous Rights

Indigenous rights are those rights that exist in recognition of the specific condition of the Indigenous peoples. This includes not only the most basic human rights of physical survival and integrity, but also the rights over their land (including native title), language, religion, and other elements of cultural heritage that are a part of their existence and identity as a people. This can be used as an expression for advocacy of social organizations, or form a part of the national law in establishing the relationship between a government and the right of self-determination among its Indigenous people, or in international law as a protection against violation of Indigenous rights by actions of governments or groups of private interests.

Definition and historical background

Indigenous rights belong to those who, being indigenous peoples, are defined by being the original people of a land that has been conquered and colonized by outsiders.

Exactly who is a part of the indigenous peoples is disputed, but can broadly be understood in relation to colonialism. When we speak of indigenous peoples we speak of those pre-colonial societies that face a specific threat from this phenomenon of occupation, and the relation that these societies have with the colonial powers. The exact definition of who are the indigenous people, and the consequent state of rightsholders, varies. Being too inclusive is considered as bad as being non-inclusive.

In the context of modern indigenous people of European colonial powers, the recognition of indigenous rights can be traced to at least the period of the Renaissance. Along with the justification of colonialism with a higher purpose for both the colonists and colonized, some voices expressed concern over the way indigenous peoples were treated and the effect it had on their societies. In the Spanish Empire, the crown established the General Indian Court in Mexico and in Peru, with jurisdiction over cases involving the indigenous and aimed at protecting Indians from ill-treatment. Indians’ access to the court was enabled by a small tax which paid for legal aides.

The issue of indigenous rights is also associated with other levels of human struggle. Due to the close relationship between indigenous peoples’ cultural and economic situations and their environmental settings, indigenous rights issues are linked with concerns over environmental change and sustainable development. According to scientists and organizations like the Rainforest Foundation, the struggle for indigenous peoples is essential for solving the problem of reducing carbon emission, and approaching the threat on both cultural and biological diversity in general.

Maasai Tribe Kenya Sky Clouds Men Jumping Dancing

Maasai warriors from the Masai Mara area of Kenya performing a dance


The rights, claims and even identity of indigenous peoples are apprehended, acknowledged and observed quite differently from government to government. Various organizations exist with charters to in one way or another promote (or at least acknowledge) indigenous aspirations, and indigenous societies have often banded together to form bodies which jointly seek to further their communal interests.

International organizations

There are several non-governmental civil society movements, networks, indigenous and non-indigenous organizations whose founding mission is to protect indigenous rights, including land rights. These organizations, networks and groups underline that the problems that indigenous peoples are facing is the lack of recognition that they are entitled to live the way they choose, and lack of the right to their lands and territories. Their mission is to protect the rights of indigenous peoples without states imposing their ideas of “development”. These groups say that each indigenous culture is differentiated, rich of religious believe systems, way of life, sustenance and arts, and that the root of problem would be the interference with their way of living by state’s disrespect to their rights, as well as the invasion of traditional lands by multinational corporations and small businesses for exploitation of natural resources.

United Nations

Indigenous peoples and their interests are represented in the United Nations primarily through the mechanisms of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. In April 2000 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution to establish the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) as an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council with a mandate to review indigenous issues.

In late December 2004, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2005–2014 to be the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People. The main goal of the new decade will be to strengthen international cooperation around resolving the problems faced by indigenous peoples in areas such as culture, education, health, human rights, the environment, and social and economic development.

In September 2007, after a process of preparations, discussions and negotiations stretching back to 1982, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The non-binding declaration outlines the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to identity, culture, language, employment, health, education and other issues. Four nations with significant indigenous populations voted against the declaration: the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. All four have since then changed their vote in favour. Eleven nations abstained: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Samoa and Ukraine. Thirty-four nations did not vote, while the remaining 143 nations voted for it.

ILO 169

Main article: ILO 169

ILO 169 is a convention of the International Labour Organization. Once ratified by a state, it is meant to work as a law protecting tribal people’s rights. There are twenty-two physical survival and integrity, but also the preservation of their land, language and religion rights. The ILO is represents indigenous rights as they are the organisation that enforced instruments the deal with indigenous rights exclusively.

Organization of American States

Since 1997, the nations of the Organization of American States have been discussing draft versions of a proposed American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “The draft declaration is currently one of the most important processes underway with regard to indigenous rights in the Americas” as mentioned by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

By country


See also: Indigenous land rights in Australia

Indigenous land rights in Australia, also known as Aboriginal land rights in Australia, relate to the rights and interests in land of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, and the term may also include the struggle for those rights. Connection to the land and waters is vital in Australian Aboriginal culture and to that of Torres Strait Islander people, and there has been a long battle to gain legal and moral recognition of ownership of the lands and waters occupied by the many peoples prior to colonisation of Australia starting in 1788, and the annexation of the Torres Strait Islands by the colony of Queensland in the 1870s.

As of 2020, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights and interests in land are formally recognised over around 40 per cent of Australia’s land mass, and sea rights have also been asserted in various native title cases.


See also: Indigenous land claims in Canada

Indigenous peoples in Canada demand to have their land rights and their Aboriginal titles respected by the Canadian government. These outstanding land claims are some of the main political issues facing Indigenous peoples today.

The Government of Canada started recognizing Indigenous land claims in 1973. Federal policy divided the claims in two categories: comprehensive claims and specific claims. Comprehensive claims deal with Indigenous rights of Métis, First Nations and Inuit communities that did not sign treaties with the Government of Canada. Specific claims, on the other hand, are filed by First Nations communities over Canada’s breach of the Numbered Treaties, the Indian Act or any other agreements between the Crown and First Nations.

Although these land claims have often been problematic there has been a shift in terms of how the Canadian Government views these claims. This shift started in the early 1980’s due to the ideology that these claims would be an effective approach to improve socio-economic circumstances for Indigenous Canadians.


See also: 1979 Greenlandic home rule referendum and 2008 Greenlandic self-government referendum

The Indigenous people of Greenland gained home rule in 1979 and extended to self-government in 2009.

A consultative referendum on home rule was held in Greenland on 17 January 1979. Just over 70.1% of voters voted in favour of greater autonomy from Denmark, leading to the establishment of a Greenlandic Parliament and Greenland gaining sovereignty in areas such as education, health, fisheries and the environment.

A non-binding referendum on Greenland’s autonomy was held on 25 November 2008 to support or oppose the Greenland Self-Government Act. It was passed with 75% approval (63% in Nuuk) and a 72% turnout.The non-binding referendum was on expanded home rule in 30 areas, including police, courts, and the coast guard; gave Greenland a say in foreign policy; provided a more definite split of future oil revenue; and made the Greenlandic language the sole official language.


Indigenous peoples have a mere “remedial” right to secession in international law, irrespective of their right of self-determination and self-government, leaving the existence of rights of secession to internal laws of sovereign states, and independence to the capacities of states.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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