Indigenous Peoples Rights

Who Are Indigenous Peoples?

The international community has developed an understanding of the term based on the following fundamental criteria such as:

  • Self-identification as Indigenous Peoples at the individual level and acceptance as a member by the community;
  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies;
  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources;
  • Distinct social, economic, or political systems; language, culture, and knowledge;
  • Resolve to maintain themselves as distinctive peoples.

Today, Indigenous Peoples number more than 370 million individuals and live in more than 90 different countries on every continent.[1] In some countries, such as Ecuador and Bolivia, Indigenous Peoples form the majority of the population; in others, including Norway and the United States, they comprise small minorities.  Despite their vast geographic and cultural differences, Indigenous Peoples share a common experience: they are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world today.

During the era of colonial expansion, most Europeans considered themselves superior to native peoples from regions such as Africa, Asia, and the Americas. During this process of colonial domination, Indigenous Peoples were systematically deprived of their land and its resources, their languages, their cultural identities, and their ways of life. Most Indigenous societies that have survived into the twenty-first century are predominantly subsistence-based, that is, they are non-urban and farm or hunt for food for immediate use.

The Movement for Indigenous Rights  

On September 13, 2007, after years of negotiations in which hundreds of Indigenous nations and organizations participated, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Previous international human rights documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948 had emphasized individual rights. However, the needs of most Indigenous Peoples can only be assured through the protection of both their individual rights and also their collective rights, whichprotect the interests and identities of whole groups of people, such as the right to a language or culture. UNDRIP, which recognizes both the individual and collective rights of Indigenous Peoples, has become a major tool for them to defend themselves against discrimination, racism, oppression, marginalization, and exploitation.

Among the human rights the Declaration defines and protects, these are of particular importance to Indigenous Peoples:

1.  The right to self-determination: Many consider this the most significant feature of the Declaration. Self-determination may be expressed through –

  • Self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs;
  • Respect for the principle of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC);
  • Full participation of Indigenous Peoples at every stage of any action that may affect them direct or indirectly;
  • Formal recognition of Indigenous People’s traditional institutions and forms of socio-political organization;
  • Recognition of the right of Indigenous Peoples to freely define and pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.

2.  Collective rights: Included in the Declaration are –

  • recognition of Indigenous People’s distinctive cultures;
  • recognition of Indigenous People’s right to their traditional lands and natural resources;
  • recognition of Indigenous People’s traditional knowledge.

3.  The right to development: Indigenous Peoples have the right to define and decide on their own development priorities.

Related Human Rights Instruments


[1] State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples Report: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/en/sowip.html.