Skip to main content

Search

International Issues: Section 3 - UN mechanisms for the recognition of Indigenous rights

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Friday 14 December, 2012

Section 3

UN mechanisms for the recognition of Indigenous rights

This section provides an overview of the UN system and the specialised mechanisms focused on Indigenous human rights.


Guiding principles for UN activities on the rights of Indigenous peoples

Current United Nations activities on the rights of Indigenous peoples are guided by the Millennium Development Goals and the objectives of the 2nd International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People.

The Millennium Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals  pdf doc represent the objectives agreed to by UN member States in 2000 which commit governments of States to redress the unequal benefits of globalisation by 2015.   The Millennium Development Goals specifically summarise the eight development goals and targets agreed on in the Millennium Declarationpdf doc

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) has indicated that the Millennium Development Goals ‘must be reviewed to capture the specificities of Indigenous and tribal peoples and their visions’. In accordance with this view, the UNPFII chose Indigenous peoples and the Millennium Development Goals as a special theme of both its Fifth Session in May 2006 and Fourth Session in May 2005.

For additional interpretation of the Millennium Development Goals as they relate to Indigenous peoples, please see the following links:

Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People

In December 2004, the General Assembly adopted a Resolution for a Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, which commenced on 1 January 2005 and runs until 2015. The purpose of the Decade is to strengthen collaboration of UN activity on Indigenous peoples over the next decade in regards to action oriented programmes, projects and relevant standard setting activities. The Program of Action pdf docfor the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People was approved by the UN General Assembly in November 2005.

↑ index


The United Nations Human Rights System and Indigenous Rights

There are two main areas in the United Nations human rights system:

1. The Treaty based system 

See the following links for information on the treaty based system:

Australia has ratified the following Treaties:

General comments and recommendations of all human rights treaty bodies are compiled annually:

See the links below for treaty body general comments on issues relevant to the rights of Indigenous peoples:

↑ index

2. The Charter based system

The UN human rights bodies and mechanisms established as a result of resolutions and decisions of the UN system are referred to as the charter-based system of human rights. Charter based bodies operate through conferences and meetings and in contrast to the Treaty based system, State governments have a strong influence in the Charter based bodies where the position of government representatives as well as NGO’s are advocated.
For further information see the overview of Indigenous peoples and the charter based system (UN Leaflet 3).word doc Please note that the Commission on Human Rights has been replaced by the Human Rights Council which now reports directly to the General Assembly. 

UN Charter-based bodies which focus on the rights of Indigenous peoples include:

  • The Human Rights Council (formerly the Commission on Human Rights)

In March 2006, the General Assembly of the United Nations established the Human Rights Council which replaces the Commission on Human Rights. All mandates, mechanisms, functions and responsibilities of the Commission have been assumed, as of 19 June 2006, by the Human Rights Council which continues to be the largest human rights forum at the UN.  Functions of the Council include addressing human rights violations, promoting human rights education, conducting reviews of States’ human rights records, responding to human rights emergencies and facilitating a forum for human rights dialogue.
As a direct subsidiary of the General Assembly, the new Human Rights Council has a higher status than the Commission which was a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council. A new function of the Human Rights Council is to conduct universal and periodic reviews on the adherence of all UN member States to human rights norms with particular scrutiny of the elected Human Rights Council members. The accountability of the Council is improved as Council members that commit gross and systemic human rights violations can now be suspended from the Council by a vote of the General Assembly. It is anticipated that the periodic review process will be used to highlight ongoing concerns about Indigenous rights within States.

The UNPFII was established by a resolution of the Economic and Social Council in July 2000. It is an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council, with a mandate to discuss Indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. The UNPFII is comprised of sixteen independent experts, eight of which are nominated by governments and eight nominated directly by Indigenous organisations in their regions.
General information on the UNPFII pdf doc
Background information on the formation of the UNPFII  word doc
Reports of the UNPFII:

Further Information:

Reports of workshops hosted by the UNPFII:

Further Information:

↑ index

  • Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP)

The WGIPpdf doc is a subsidiary organ of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. It consists of independent experts and members of the Sub-Commission - one from each of the geopolitical regions of the world and is open to all representatives of Indigenous peoples and their communities and organisations. The Working Group has a two-fold mandate:

  • To review developments pertaining to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous peoples
  • To give attention to the evolution of international standards concerning Indigenous rights.

Reports of recent sessions of the WGIP:

Recent papers prepared for the WGIP include:

↑ index

    • Special Rapporteur on the situation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous people

In 2001 the Commission on Human Rights appointed Rodolfo Stavenhagen from Mexico as Special Rapporteur pdf doc on the situation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous people. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur is to:

    • Gather and exchange information and receive communications from Governments, Indigenous people themselves and their communities and organisations on violations of their human rights and fundamental freedoms;
    • Formulate recommendations and proposals on appropriate measures and activities to prevent and remedy violations of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous people and;
    • Work in close relation with other special rapporteurs, special representatives, working groups and independent experts

The Special Rapporteur receives a large number of communications providing him with information about allegations of violations of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous peoples. Many of these communications are received from non-governmental organisations and Indigenous organisations.

Reports of the Special Rapporteur:

Special Rapporteur’s International Seminars ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’:

↑ index

    • The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

For many years Indigenous peoples at the international level have been advocating for the recognition of distinctly Indigenous human rights standards. This is given the fact that most human rights standards are focused on upholding the rights of individuals with limited protection for the collective rights of Indigenous peoples that may exist in relation to lands, territories and resources. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides this recognition whilst encouraging cooperation between states and Indigenous peoples based on principles of consultation and partnership.
It was expected that the full text of the Declaration, adopted by the Human Rights Council in June 2006 and following over two decades of negotiations, was to be adopted by the Third Committee in November 2006. However, on 28 November 2006, the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) of the General Assembly adopted an amended draft resolution that defers action and consideration on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to allow time for further consultation.
Consideration of the Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples is to now be concluded before the end of the General Assembly’s current sixty-first session in September 2007.
Further information:

On 29 June 2006, the Human Rights Council adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and recommended its adoption by the General Assembly.

See the links below for further information on the development of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

↑ index

  • Other specialised United Nations Agencies and Indigenous Peoples

There are a range of other United Nations specialised agencies which conduct activities related to Indigenous peoples.

There are a range of international forums and negotiations which focus specifically on Indigenous peoples rights:

International human rights standards of particular relevance to Indigenous peoples

This section highlights the interpretation of human rights standards as they relate to Indigenous peoples.

Racial Discrimination

The Committee of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued its Interpretation of the application of the Convention to Indigenous peoples (General Recommendation no. 23) pdf doc on 18 August 1997. The General Recommendation acts as a guide to governments outlining how the ICERD is to be interpreted in relation to Indigenous peoples. General Recommendation 23 in particular calls on governments to recognise and respect distinct Indigenous culture and ensure that in all decisions that effect their rights and interests the informed consent of Indigenous peoples is obtained.

Right to Development

The Declaration on the Right to Development pdf doc was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1986. It establishes development as a right of every human person and all peoples, moving beyond a concept of development that is limited to economic growth of the State. A rights based approach to development, as detailed by the Declaration, is relevant to the recognition of Indigenous rights as it provides a basis for Indigenous control over their own development process.
See the link below for further documents discussing the right to development and Indigenous peoples:

↑ index

Free Prior and Informed Consent

Free, prior and informed consent recognizes Indigenous peoples’ inherent and prior rights to their lands and resources and respects their legitimate authority to require that third parties enter into an equal and respectful relationship with them, based on the principle of informed consent (as defined by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Twenty-second session, 19 -13 July 2004).
See the links below for further documents discussing free, prior and informed consent and Indigenous peoples:

Minority group rights

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights pdf docprovides that 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. NB: Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child pdf docis framed in similar terms.
See the links below for further documents discussing minority group rights and Indigenous peoples:

↑ index

Self-determination

All peoples have the right of self-determination pursuant to Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
See the links below for further documents discussing Indigenous peoples’ right to self determination:

ILO Convention 169 – Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries

ILO Convention 169 pdf docis the only current treaty specifically relating to Indigenous human rights. Australia is not a party to the convention.
See the link below for documents discussing ILO Convention 169:

Traditional Knowledge and the Convention on Biological Diversity

Traditional Knowledge is identified by The Convention on Biological Diversity as the knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous and local communities around the world. The Convention was signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and is dedicated to promoting sustainable development. The three main goals of the Convention are: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of its components and; the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources.

The Convention on Biological Diversity recognises that Traditional Knowledge can make a significant contribution to sustainable development. Article 8 (j) pdf doccommits Parties to the Convention to respect, preserve and maintain traditional knowledge relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, and to promote its wider application. The Conference of the Parties to the Convention has established a working group specifically to address the implementation of Article 8(j) and related provisions of the Convention.
For further information on Traditional Knowledge and the Convention on Biological Diversity see the links below:

For additional information of relevance to Traditional Knowledge in the International law context see the links below:

↑ top