The rights of indigenous people
Indigenous peoples inhabit large areas of the earth's surface. Spread across the world from the Arctic to the South Pacific, they number, at a rough estimate, some 300 million. Indigenous or aboriginal peoples are so-called because they were living on their lands before settlers came from elsewhere; they are the descendants - according to one definition - of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived, the new arrivals later becoming dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means.
Among many indigenous peoples are the Indians of the Americas (for example, the Mayas of Guatemala or the Aymaras of Bolivia), the Inuit and Aleutians of the circumpolar region, the Saami of northern Europe, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia, and the Maori of New Zealand. These and most other indigenous peoples have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics which are clearly distinct from those of the other segments of the national populations.
Throughout human history, whenever dominant neighbouring peoples have expanded their territories or settlers from far away have acquired new lands by force, the cultures and livelihoods - even the existence - of indigenous peoples have been endangered. The threats to indigenous peoples' cultures and lands, to their status and other legal rights as distinct groups and as citizens, do not always take the same forms as in previous times. Although some groups have been relatively successful, in most part of the world indigenous peoples are actively seeking recognition of their identities and ways of life.
As of March 1997, 15 organizations of indigenous peoples have consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Consultative status entitles them to attend and contribute to a wide range of international and intergovernmental conferences. These organizations are: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Asociación Kunas Unidos por Nabguana, Four Directions Council, Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec), Indian Council of South America, Indian Law Resource Centre, Indigenous World Association, International Indian Treaty Council, International Organization of Indigenous Resource Development, Inuit Circumpolar Conference, National Aboriginal and Islander Legal Services Secretariat, National Indian Youth Council, Saami Council, Sejekto Cultural Association of Costa Rica, and World Council of Indigenous Peoples. In addition, hundreds of representatives of other indigenous peoples and their organizations participate in United Nations meetings, in particular those of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Non-governmental organizations with general human rights interests actively contribute to work in the field of indigenous peoples' rights, in addition to supporting indigenous peoples' causes.
In spite of cultural and ethnic diversity, there are often striking similarities between the problems, grievances and interests of the various indigenous peoples and therefore in their presentations to international forums. Participation of indigenous communities and organizations in United Nations meetings has served to highlight these similarities.
It has often been the case - particularly since the emergence of new nations in the wave of decolonization which followed the Second World War - that indigenous peoples insist on retaining their separate identity and cultural heritage. It is now generally admitted that policies of assimilation and integration aimed at bringing these groups fully into the mainstream of majority populations are often counter-productive.
Non-governmental activity, on the one hand, and intergovernmental initiatives, on the other, have had a mutually reinforcing effect. The first international conference of non-governmental organizations on indigenous issues was held in Geneva in 1977. This was followed by another non-governmental conference on indigenous peoples and the land, also in Geneva, in 1981. These meetings, and a special United Nations study then nearing completion, influenced developments which led to the establishment in 1982 of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.
In the United Nations and the International Labour Organization, it is recognized that the establishment and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples are an essential part of human rights and a legitimate concern of the international community. The two organizations are active in the setting and implementing of standards designed to ensure respect for existing rights of indigenous peoples and the adoption of additional rights.
Source: Fact sheet no. 9 (Rev.1) of UN, Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.